Northern Virginia Bureau Chief Julie Carey explains where the candidates for governor stand on education reform.
What the next governor would mean for Virginia teachers came to the fore on Thursday, with Democrat Terry McAuliffe running an ad saying Republican rival Ken Cuccinelli would siphon dollars away from public schools while the GOP nominee accused his opponent of costing educators their health care.
The competing messages come with just days to go before Virginians cast their vote for governor on Nov. 5. Polls show McAuliffe leading, and fundraising and spending reports show it a heavily lopsided race in his favor, too. But turnout is expected to be low and a few thousand votes could make the difference.
"You should know that I am concerned about Ken Cuccinelli,'' middle school science teacher Kellie Blair Hardt says in the television ad that joins a pro-McAuliffe lineup that is now outspending Cuccinelli by a 25-to-1 margin this week.
"He wants to take away money from public schools to fund private schools, risking laying off teachers and increasing class size,'' adds Hardt, who teaches in Virginia's Prince William County. "Ken Cuccinelli is just wrong for our schools.''
Cuccinelli has promised to push a state constitutional amendment that would end Virginia's ban on sending public funds to religious schools. He also wants parents of children in failing schools to have the option of taking over the school, firing principals and converting the building into a charter school.
Cuccinelli's education plan also seeks to allow parents the chance to pick their children's public schools with the help of state-backed scholarships and offers of tax credits if they choose private options.
The Virginia Education Association, which backs McAuliffe, estimated Cuccinelli's plan would cut $422 million from public schools -- the equivalent of 6,500 teachers.
Cuccinelli's team, too, looked to use teachers in their effort to overtake McAuliffe's lead. Cuccinelli pointed to published reports that schools were limiting the number of hours part-time employees could work to comply with the federal health care law.
The federal law says employers must provide health coverage to workers who are on the job 30 hours or more. Cuccinelli said the law -- and its backers like McAuliffe -- were costing educators their health coverage.
"News that schools in Henrico, Chesterfield and Richmond are being forced to cut the hours of part-time employees is just the latest example,'' Cuccinelli said. "Back in April, our own state government had to push over 17,000 state employees down below 30 hours per week.''
Cuccinelli, who is perhaps best known outside of Virginia as the first attorney general to sue to block the health care law, has pitched his campaign as a referendum on President Barack Obama's signature legislation.
"President Obama sold the public on the most significant and burdensome legislation in a generation under false pretenses,'' Cuccinelli said in a statement. "And now, the American people -- including folks right here in Virginia -- are forced to live with that lie and all of the liberty and job-crushing consequences that go with it.''
McAuliffe has pledged that he would take advantage of the federal law's offer to expand Medicaid in the state. That would translate to about 400,000 Virginians receiving health care coverage for free for three years, then the state picking up an increasing share of the tab in coming years.
Cuccinelli and his allies say the state cannot afford that and should not take part in the federal law. He has vowed to oppose it.
"If you like what you're seeing with Obamacare, then by all means vote for Terry McAuliffe. You're guaranteed to get more of it,'' Republican Party of Virginia chairman Pat Mullins said. "But if you want to send a message to Washington that Obamacare isn't working and that Virginians have had enough of it, vote for Ken Cuccinelli.''