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In the 94th District at the House of Delegates, Del. Shelly A. Simonds, a Democratic incumbent, faces a challenge from Republican pastor and business owner C. Russ Harper.
At the center of the race are the candidates’ divergent views on public education.
Simonds — who has been a schoolteacher, PTA president and Newport News School Board member — says her top legislative priority is “fighting for our future by investing in public education.”
“Public education has just fueled my passion for being an elected official,” she said. “It’s my guiding light. It’s why I do what I do.”
Simonds said she will fight for teacher pay raises, attempting to raise them to the national average “to attract and keep the best and brightest in teaching,” she said, contending that’s the best way to help students.
Simonds said she will also push for more state money “to rebuild crumbling school infrastructure in Newport News and across Virginia.”
She also wants more money for science and math, computer training for younger students, and more counselors to help the students both transition to work or college and contend with mental health challenges exacerbated by the pandemic.
Harper, whose five daughters have been home-schooled, said he’s pushing hard for “school choice” — allowing parents to choose between public schools, private schools and charter schools, all on the government’s dime.
“We’re really fighting to get school choice going in Virginia,” said Harper, a former Army sergeant who runs a painting and drywall business and founded a local church in 2018.
“Parents shouldn’t be forced to send their kids to a school that may be failing just because of where they live,” he said. A public school “monopoly,” he asserted, is bad for educational outcomes.
It shouldn’t be just the wealthy, he contends, who can afford to pull their kids out of failing public schools.
Harper envisions that state and local money for each student would go either directly to the school the parents pick, or to the parents themselves in the form of a voucher.
“Parents will have the option to send the child to a school that they believe could give them the best education possible,” he said.
Newport News has the lowest test scores on the Peninsula, he said, “and we believe school choice would go a long way in fixing some of that.”
“It will make everybody step up their game, and they will basically compete for your child,” Harper said. “Quality will go up across the board.”
Republicans and Democrats disagree on lots of things, he said, “but there are certain things that we can agree on.”
“We have to sell it as being the best choice for the children,” Harper said. “One thing that I hope that we can get back to is really reaching across the aisle.”
Simonds counters that the Newport News public schools already have a lot of excellent alternative programs, such as the Aviation Academy at Denbigh High School and the International Baccalaureate program at Warwick High.
Charter schools haven’t taken off in Virginia, she said, because privately run organizations don’t want to abide by the state’s strict accreditation requirements, such as annual SOLs and funding teacher pensions.
Instead of “bashing our public school system,” Simonds said, her plan is “to make it stronger and make it better.”
“I think the real problem we have is funding,” she said, adding that Virginia is the 10th richest state but ranks 41st in teacher pay. “We’re just not funding our schools compared to most other wealthy states.”
A race for the 94th District seat drew some national attention a few years back.
In 2017, Simonds lost a squeaker to three-term incumbent David Yancey in dramatic fashion. The race, with a long story short, featured an ultimate tie and Yancey’s name pulled out of a ceramic bowl for the win.
That kept the state’s House of Delegates in GOP hands. But the district’s borders changed, and Simonds comfortably carried the seat with 58 percent of the vote in 2019.
Shelly Simonds, Democrat
Occupation: Incumbent state delegate since 2019; self-employed (property manager for family’s rental properties).
Previous office held, if any: Member, Newport News School Board, 2012 to 2019; Chair, New Horizons Regional Education Centers Board, 2016 to 2019; Board member, Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, 2015 to 2019, chair from 2018 to 2019).
Education: Bucknell University, BA in international relations, 1991; Stanford University, MA in Communications and Journalism, 1994
If re-elected, what would be your top priority and how would you get it done?
As a member of the Education Committee in the House, I voted for a 5% pay raise for school teachers and staff, and will continue to push for pay raises to bring our teachers up to the National Average. As a member of the School Construction and Modernization Commission, I will fight for funding to I will continue to prioritize education in Science Technology Engineering and Math so that our students have the skills they need to access high-paying technology jobs in shipbuilding, healthcare, and more when they graduate. Finally, I will advocate for more counselors and behavior specialists in our schools, which will not only address mental health needs exacerbated by COVID-19, but will also help us connect students to career pathways and more internship opportunities. As a result of our sound fiscal management practices, I know that we can continue to make significant investments in our greatest asset, our people.
Russ Harper, Republican
Occupation: Painting and drywall business, CRH Colorscapes since 2013, Spent 13 years with the U.S. Army, leaving as a sergeant. Pastor at Hope Church in Newport News.
Previous office held, if any: None
Education: Bachelor’s degree in Biblical studies from Regent University in 2014, and a master’s of practical theology, 2017.
If elected, what would be your top priority and how would you get it done?
“Parents shouldn’t be forced to send their kids to a school that may be failing just because of where they live,” he said. A public school “monopoly,” he asserted, is bad for educational outcomes. It shouldn’t be just the wealthy, he contends, who can afford to pull their kids out of failing public schools. Harper envisions that state and local money for each student would go either directly to the school the parents pick, or to the parents themselves in the form of a voucher. Republicans and Democrats disagree on lots of things, he said, but said school choice can be accomplished by reaching across the aisle.
Peter Dujardin, 757-247-4749, email@example.com