Stafford County schools Superintendent Scott Kizner calls Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni “one of the hardest-working, most-compassionate leaders to come out of Richmond” that he has known in 20 years.

“I like to think I get around, but he is everywhere, looking to make a difference,” Kizner said in introducing Qarni before an informal discussion between the state’s top education official and Stafford school division administrators at Stafford Elementary on Tuesday morning.

Qarni’s visit included a stop at Brooke Point High School’s Inspire Virginia voter registration rally and a tour of Stafford Elementary, in addition to the roundtable discussion.

Qarni is a former Marine Corps sergeant who worked as an eighth-grade civics teacher in Prince William County before being appointed to Gov. Ralph Northam’s cabinet. He said working as a middle school teacher prepared him for a role in government.

“If you can teach eighth grade, you can essentially do anything,” he joked.

In his remarks, Qarni said visiting as many of Virginia’s school districts as possible has showed him that the state lags “far behind” the national average in teacher pay and that compensation and increased funding for support staff—resource officers, psychologists, social workers and counselors—will be the top priorities in his recommendation for the governor’s next budget.

Qarni said he understands the pressure local economies feel to meet school funding requests.

“The state can and should be doing more, giving more resources and trusting divisions to make decisions,” he said. “We are moving in the right direction, slowly but surely.”

Qarni also said he would like to see a move away from the standardized testing model, which he called “toxic.”

In response to an audience question asking him to elaborate on that topic, he joked that he was “going to get in trouble,” but said he wants students to focus on deeper learning.

“In some situations, standardized testing is necessary, but we need a better way to understand what kids are learning,” Qarni said. “End-of-year assessments have handcuffed us to some degree.”

He added that he wants to eventually see project-based assessments not only supplementing but replacing standardized tests.

Qarni also said he will continue working with Virginia first lady Pamela Northam to increase access to preschool in the commonwealth.

“We want to get all 4-year-olds into public preschool,” he said.

Another priority for Qarni is equity.

“It’s very, very critical to look through an equity lens,” he said.

Virginia has concentrations of great affluence as well as great need, and state government should play a role in helping to ensure students all across the state have equal access to quality education, Qarni said.

One way to achieve this is by putting experienced teachers—rather than first-year teachers—into schools with high needs.

Teachers have told him this would require a significant salary increase, as much as 15 or 20 percent.

“It’s an investment we have to make, and it’s not a burden we want to put on localities,” Qarni said. “The Board of Education is considering putting out a recommendation for a stipend.”

Qarni ended his remarks by asking educators to continue advocating for themselves and their students.

“It’s our responsibility to assert ourselves as educators,” he said. “And you have a great school division leader here who listens.”

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Adele Uphaus–Conner: 540/735-1973 auphaus@freelancestar.com @flsadele