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Column: State Must Clarify Its Takeover of Schools

Virginia ranks third in the nation in the education we provide students. However, there are some schools that year after year cannot attain accreditation. I agree something needs to be done to address this issue, as all students deserve a quality education. Governor McDonnell introduced a number of education bills this session. I supported some of those, but one initiative leaves me very concerned. Known as the Opportunity Educational Institute, or the school takeover bill, HB 2096 and its companion piece SB 1374, creates an unchecked bureaucracy to take over schools and commandeer local facilities and tax dollars, perhaps indefinitely. These bills would create an entity that would have the power to take over a school that does not reach accreditation for two successive years, yet it is silent on many important details that give a great deal of power to the bureaucracy, yet no accountability.

I have been vocally opposed to these bills and made numerous efforts to make changes to the language in the bills, both on the House floor and behind the scenes with the goal of addressing local involvement, use of local funds, use of local facilities, how a school is identified for inclusion in a takeover program, metrics used to return the school to its community, and many other areas in which the bill is silent.

There are well over a hundred schools throughout Virginia that could be impacted by the Opportunity Educational Institute over the next few years. With more rigorous math and reading tests in Virginia — harder math SOL tests were rolled out last year and language arts SOL will be new this year, we can expect more schools to struggle with test scores as they adapt to these harder tests. These harder tests will result in a large number of schools qualifying for a complete school take over under the Governor’s proposal. One of the unintended consequences of the Opportunity Educational Institute is that it gives the Board of Education an incentive to think twice about harder tests and higher expectations because adapting to those tests would put so many schools at risk of a complete take-over.

I support Minority Leader Saslaw’s proposal, SJ328, to have the state Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee study the current status of struggling schools in Virginia to identify the most effective policies for turning these schools around. And I support SB 1374 from Senator Alexander which requires the Board of Education to designate for further corrective action any school that has been denied accreditation and that has failed, per the Board of Education's assessment, to demonstrate progress toward full accreditation. SB 1374 works with the local community and school board to implement proven practices that have been demonstrated to improve student achievement.

It is imperative that we help all schools succeed in Virginia. We can do that by ensuring Virginia schools are implementing the proven programs that have been demonstrated to work throughout the country. Rushing magic wand policy solutions that have not been based in research is the surest way to further harm our schools. Virginia is one of the best states in the country for education precisely because we are deliberate and thoughtful in our approach to school policy. The Opportunity Educational Institute is exactly the opposite. Senator Alexander’s and Minority Leader Saslaw’s approaches are much more consistent with the approach that has generated Virginia’s reputation for school success. By expanding the range of interventions that the Board of Education can request of local school divisions, SB 1374 increases the chance for success and ensures strong community engagement in any school turn-around effort.

Please contact me this week to share your thoughts.