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All students deserve an opportunity

Published 12:21am Saturday, September 21, 2013

By Gov. Bob McDonnell

Few statements meet with as much agreement as this one: Every child in every community deserves the basic opportunity to attend a great school. It is common sense. Unfortunately though, even in a commonwealth as prosperous as ours, there are still students who are being sent, every day, to chronically failing schools. This year, we’ve taken action to challenge the status quo, and end this tragedy.

This past session of the General Assembly, lawmakers came together to pass legislation creating the Opportunity Educational Institution. Based on successful efforts in Louisiana and Tennessee, the Institution allows the commonwealth — in extreme cases in which a school repeatedly fails to gain accreditation — to step in and take action. The commonwealth will become responsible for that failing school, turn it around, and when that is achieved turn the school back to the locality. In short, no longer will we sit and watch as schools fail, year after year, and not provide greater assistance to improve student achievement.

Right now there are six schools that are candidates for inclusion in the Opportunity Educational Institution. Three are in Norfolk, two are in Petersburg, and another is in Alexandria. It is instructive to note that when this bill came up in the House of Delegates, it was supported by Democratic Delegate Algie Howell of Norfolk and Democratic Delegate Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg.

Leaders in the impacted communities supported the legislation, because they have seen this disparity in educational opportunity firsthand, and they know every child deserves the same opportunity to attend a great school.

We cannot allow some students, on the basis of nothing more than their ZIP code, to receive an education that is lesser than their peers in other communities. It is a moral imperative that we take every action available to improve all of our public schools.

It’s not just a moral issue; it’s a legal one as well. Section 1 of the Virginia Constitution states, “The General Assembly shall provide for a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age throughout the Commonwealth, and shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.”

And the Constitution goes further, establishing that Virginians will be able to take action to ensure every child gets that quality education by noting, in Section 9, “The General Assembly may provide for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of any educational institutions which are desirable for the intellectual, cultural, and occupational development of the people of this Commonwealth.”

We are constitutionally obligated to ensure that all of Virginia’s students get a quality education, no matter where they live.

In this administration, we’ve worked to bring people together to find solutions to strengthen our public education system. That work is getting results. We’ve put more funding into our public education system and ensured it is used wisely. We have increased the percentage of K-12 funding going into the classroom from 62 percent to 64 percent.  We’ve raised teacher salaries, and the average Virginia teacher’s salary is now greater than the national average.

During the last five years, the statewide dropout rate has fallen by more than 25 percent. We provided more resources so students will no longer leave third grade if they are not reading on grade level.

We’ve accomplished all of this by seeking out common ground and ensuring that our focus is on students, teachers, and parents, not bureaucracy and the status quo.

Now, disappointingly, some have decided to sue the Commonwealth to prevent the Opportunity Educational Institution from operating. That is unfortunate.

We know we have several schools in this state that have been failing for years. We know the children forced to attend those schools are not getting the same level of education as their peers in other localities.

Why anyone would want to sue to keep students trapped in failing schools is a question only they can answer. What I can make clear is this: If it takes going to court to ensure that every child gets to attend a high quality school, then that is what we will do.

In supporting the Opportunity Educational Institution, Delegate Algie Howell noted, “The next great civil rights battle is in educational opportunity, and today I challenge leaders across the commonwealth to join me in this fight.”

He’s right. Every child in Virginia deserves the opportunity to attend a great school. This is a fight worth having. For Virginia’s students, parents and teachers, it’s a fight we must win.

Bob McDonnell is the 71st governor of Virginia. Visit his website at www.governor.virginia.gov.

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