Legislators in Richmond introduce hundreds of education-related bills every year, so finding your niche in the General Assembly is crucial to passing legislation. By listening to my constituents, I have developed public policy based on the education concerns of our community.
Growing up in the Manassas part of Prince William County, I attended Little Elves Pre-School (1988-1989), Loch Lomond Elementary School (1989-1993), All Saints Catholic School (1993-1998) and Paul VI Catholic High School (Class of 2002) before earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism/mass communication at St. Bonaventure University (2006). I have benefited from incredible teachers both in public and Catholic schools and now I’m working to give back to my lifelong community through a robust focus on education policy.
Feeding Hungry Kids
For the 2018 and 2019 General Assembly sessions, I have worked with one of my Gainesville constituents to author legislation to ensure Virginia students do not go hungry at school. During the 2019 session, I introduced and passed into law HB 2400 to require all public school districts throughout Virginia to post prominently on their websites an online portal for parents to apply for free and reduced meals for their children. There are thousands of children throughout Virginia, including Prince William County and Manassas Park who are eligible for free and reduced school meals but are not enrolled because completed paper applications never made it back to school. Having an online system that’s easy to find on the school division website will allow parents to apply on their own time and without the social stigma of having to turn in a paper form declaring that their income allows them to be qualified for the program in the first place. The law goes into effect July 1, 2019, so I will monitor our local school divisions to make sure they are compliant.
Eliminating School Meal Shaming
No student should be shamed for their parents’ income situation. In addition to introducing anti-school meal shaming legislation in 2018 as a constituent service request, I signed on as the chief-co-patron of Del. Patrick Hope’s HB 50 (2018) and worked with him to pass this legislation to prevent students from being forced to wear a wristband or do chores as a result of having school meal debt. HB 50 also requires all communication concerning school meal debt to be addressed to the parent, not the student because children should just be able to focus on learning instead of being shamed for debt that their parents/guardians owe. In fact, parents often don’t know what happens when their kids carry school meal debts. I authored HB 2462 (2019) to require school districts inform parents of the policies, procedures and consequences for students carrying school meal debt. I also introduced HB 2376 (2019) to ban school officials from forcing students to throw away meals after they’ve been served to them because the student carries school meal debt or their parents/guardians cannot afford their meals. Thankfully, this shaming practice does not apply in Prince William or Manassas Park but it exists in other parts of Virginia. While HB 2462 and HB 2376 had bipartisan support of more than 50 co-patrons each – a majority of the House of Delegates – the Chairman of the House Education Committee recommended for them to instead be considered for administrative implementation through the Code of Virginia. I’ve followed up with Education Secretary Atif Qarni since then to make sure that happens. I believe forcing a student to throw away a meal should be explicitly banned in the Code of Virginia instead of at the will of the agency, so I will reintroduce that legislation to prohibit that form of school meal shaming.
Creating Equitable, Safe and Fun Learning Environments
During the 2019 session, I signed onto Del. Jeff Bourne’s HB 1600, to address the statewide of problem of black students and disabled students being disproportionately more likely to be given long-term suspensions from schools than other students. The bill, now signed into law, reduces the length of long-term suspensions from 364 days – the highest in the nation – to 45 days except in the most severe circumstances. Simply put, a child cannot learn while rehabilitating their behavior if they are being taken out of school for months at a time without education. This legislation marks the first major crack we took in the House of Delegates at addressing the school-to-prison pipeline, one of the policy promises I made during my 2017 campaign.
In Northern Virginia, we heard parents raise awareness about how denying elementary school students 15-minutes of recess in a day is actually detrimental to children as they need that unstructured time to reset and unwind before continuing their education. In 2018, I signed on as a co-patron to Del. Karrie Delaney’s HB 1419, to allow school divisions to count recess as instructional time in elementary schools. After the bill was signed into law, the Prince William County School Board was the first in the commonwealth to adopt it, so students in kindergarten through fifth grade now have an additional 15 minutes of recess per day. I’ll continue working with my colleagues who advocate on behalf of students to improve their learning environment inside and outside of the classroom.
Raising Teacher Pay
When I voted to fulfill my campaign promise to expand Medicaid to 400,000 uninsured constituents, the state government was able to bring home $371 million from the federal government, which freed up enough money in the state budget to tackle major education funding issues. By casting this vote, I also fulfilled another campaign promise to raise teacher pay. By voting for the approved FY 2019-2020 budget and related amendments in 2019, I voted to raise salaries for public school instructional staff by 5 percent. This is a great start but not the end of this important issue as we work to make sure Prince William County teachers do not have the lowest salaries in Northern Virginia while also bringing Virginia above the national average for teacher salaries. The budget also included the In-State Undergraduate Tuition Moderation Fund to prevent tuition hikes in higher education. I’ll continue to work across the aisle to fully fund K-12 and higher education while taking care of our students, instructional staff and administrators.
Leading By Example
When Google offered me $2,500 in exchange of using two seconds of a video of me for their International Women’s Day 2018 ad, I declined taking the money for myself. Instead, I asked Google to pay off $2,500 worth of school meal debts in the 13th District. This money was used to pay off all school meal debt at Loch Lomond Elementary School in Manassas, PACE West in Gainesville and took care of almost all the debt at Sinclair Elementary School in Manassas.
Meanwhile, I contributed hundreds of dollars to the “Settle the Debt” campaign to pay off school meal debts in Prince William County as my Gainesville constituent Adelle Settle raised more than $40,000 to pay off school meal debts across Prince William County Schools.
While it’s important to pay down existing debts, it’s even more important to address the systemic problems that cause debt in the first place. I will continue to advocate for maximizing enrollment in the federal Community Eligibility Program so more schools can provide meals without charge to students while I continue to advocate for the reduction and elimination of school meal debts at the state level.
Being Accessible to Student Constituents
It’s one thing for a legislator to make time for adults when the adults can vote for them. It’s another to make time for students who are too young to vote. I serve all of my constituents, regardless of their eligibility to vote and the best place to interact with students is to meet them where they’re at: school. In 2017, I heard from Manassas Park residents that they felt invisible to their elected officials so I told them that would stop with me and started engaging with my student constituents at school. Two weeks after I won the 2017 campaign, I toured every public school in Manassas Park.
In May of 2018, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine and I hosted a student-led gun prevention roundtable at Manassas Park High School where we answered questions and heard public policy ideas from Manassas Park, Stonewall Jackson, Patriot and Hylton high school students. When Stonewall Jackson High School students asked me to attend a public hearing about the proposed boundary lines for the 13th high school in Prince William County, I went and listened to the students express their frustration that the proposed lines packed students of color at one school while diluting the presence of students of color at Patriot and Battlefield High Schools.
I have conducted student town halls at Stonewall Jackson High School and the George Mason University Science and Technology campus in Manassas. By writing and passing commending resolutions in the House of Delegates, my team and I have honored educators and students alike from Prince William and Manassas Park, and twice joined the Battlefield BEST Club as they, in partnership with the Virginia Student Training and Refurbishment (STAR) Program, gave away refurbished laptops to families who needed them at Sinclair and Tyler Elementary Schools.
I attended the Manassas Park High School senior awards ceremony and sat on stage at each of the graduation ceremonies for every public high school in western Prince William County as well as the eighth grade promotion ceremony at Manassas Park Middle School, the fifth grade promotion ceremonies at Piney Branch, Sinclair, Sudley, Manassas Park Elementary Schools and even the second grade promotion ceremonies at Cougar Elementary School.
Whether it’s an outdoor festival at Osbourn Park High School to raise money for hurricane survivors in Puerto Rico, joining the advisory board for the George Mason University Science and Technology campus or testifying in front of our local school boards in favor of including LGBTQ students and staff in their non-discrimination policies (which are now implemented both in Prince William and Manassas Park), I’ve been present in our community, accessible and accountable as I’ve advocated for our community. I’ll continue to do so as your delegate.