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Townsend makes education top campaign priority

Townsend, Sara
A common trait among first-time candidates for local elected office is often that an event or series of events spurs the decision to run with the idea that "I can do better than this."

For Catlett resident Sara Townsend (D), her decision to run for the House of Delegates came down to two issues.

Townsend talked about her campaign for the district represented by state Del. Scott Lingamfelter (R-31st) during an interview outside Starbucks in Gainesville on Sunday evening, shortly after leaving her campaign kick-off party in Catlett.

One of her motivators was education. Townsend grew up in the wooded part of Manassas and attended local public schools like Parkside Middle School and Osbourn Park High School before her family moved to Fauquier and she graduated from Liberty High School in Bealeton.

She went to George Mason University for her undergrad and masters in teaching and spent four years teaching middle school U.S. history in Virginia Beach.

It was there that the she saw what she described as an impractical way students and teachers alike are both evaluated.

The included the Standards of Learning tests for students and for teachers being told they needed to teach full days on Saturday to make up for snow days, only to find that they would be evaluated on their weekend classes.

"They might see one lesson the entire year and judge your teaching for the entire year," she said. "I saw teachers get evaluated the day before Christmas break."

For students, Townsend recommended that year-end SOLs are inadequate since there is no test at the beginning of the year to compare the final results measuring intellectual growth.

She also suggested testing at "benchmark" years like third and eighth grade as opposed to more frequent tests, which can force teachers to teach to the test instead of demonstrate creativity in the classroom.

"Under No Child Left Behind, Virginia is accountable and they have to hold their schools accountable for their test scores," she said.

When asked what legislation she would file to address SOLs, she suggested cuts or modifications to the test may be a start, which could lead to cost savings that could be reallocated to the classroom.

An SOL reform bill passed in 2014 to provide "that the number and type of Standards of Learning assessments shall not exceed 17 specified assessments in grades three through eight."

Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton is also in charge of the SOL Innovation Committee, tasked with studying more potential reforms to the SOLs.

"Just because a subject doesn't have a SOL test doesn't mean it shouldn't be a priority," Townsend said.

After she stopped teaching in 2014, Townsend explained she went to Richmond to work on education legislation and attended committee hearings in the House of Delegates where unrecorded voice votes are a common way to quickly defeat legislation.

In one case, she said she witnessed a bill sponsor call up someone to testify against his own bill and, without another speaker, the committee voted it down.

To Townsend, that suggested someone just went through the motions of filing a bill without any real intent to pass it. She mentioned the House should adopt the Senate's rule mandating recorded committee votes.

In April, the nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group Transparency Virginia released a report about the voting process at the 2015 General Assembly session.

"In the House, 76 [percent] of bills and resolutions killed in sub/committee without a recorded vote or any vote at all, versus 7 [percent] of bills defeated in the same way in the Senate," states the report.

In many regards, Townsend is a down-the-line Democrat, though she paints herself as willing to compromise without being ideologically driven.

She supports Medicaid expansion, the 2013 transportation bill and same-sex marriage, all of which Lingamfelter voted against.

Two days before her interview, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision recognizing that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, something Townsend said can help school-age students feel "comfortable with who they are."

"I think that anything we can do to show acceptance to students for who they are is a good thing," she said.

As for McAuliffe's chief issue of Medicaid, the state Senate passed a bill that would accept federal Medicaid dollar last year but the House voted against it.

However, the governor signed this year's budget into law without an amendment, suggesting that he was at least comfortable enough moving forward with the budgeting process without a drag-out fight over Medicaid, at least this time around.

McAuliffe's predecessor, former Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), had a signature issue too: the transportation bill that raised the local sales tax and grantor's tax in order to pump billions of dollars into road and transit projects.

"I supported the idea of the transportation bill," said Townsend, later adding that lawmakers acknowledged with the bill that, on transportation, "We're always playing catch-up."

When asked about specific transportation projects though, Townsend admitted that this subject, among others, is where she's still catching up as a first-time candidate.

Like Lingamfelter, she supports studying an extension of the Metro Blue line to eastern Prince William and she opposed the proposed Bi-County Parkway.

She also backs a westward expansion of the Virginia Railway Express from Manassas and suggested that there should be a "system to get people to the VRE stations that already exist."

She wasn't familiar enough with the long-discussed Godwin Drive extension from Manassas to Fairfax and Loudoun, called the Tri-County Parkway, to discuss it.

As for adding more High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes to Northern Virginia, specifically along Interstate 66, Townsend said she's heard "a lot of people" complain about the HOT lanes on Interstates 95 and 495.

"They've very frustrated with the HOT lanes," she said.

Although the I-95 lanes are a private-public partnership run by an Australian company, Townsend said that, to local residents, "They just see Virginia is making them pay to use the HOT lanes."
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