Defenders of education

Published 9:59 pm Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Two sets of bills before the General Assembly this session provide clear evidence of the difference between Virginia Republicans and Democrats when it comes to education.

School choice bills have passed both the House of Delegates and the state Senate, with the votes coming down on starkly partisan lines. In both Assembly chambers, Republicans voted in favor of the bills, which would allow tax credits for businesses that provide scholarships to private schools for families that could not afford to send their children to those schools otherwise.

The two versions of the legislation have different eligibility requirements for the families and would provide different levels of tax relief for the companies that provide the scholarships. A conference committee will have to hammer out a compromise, which then would have to be approved by both chambers before going to Gov. Bob McDonnell for a likely signature.

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Democrats in the both chambers uniformly voted against the measures.

Another bill that would affect public schools faced a similar partisan divide. By a 55-43 vote last week, the Republican-controlled House approved the bill, which would have replaced continuing contracts for teachers and principals with three-year contracts that would not automatically be renewed. The purpose was to make it easier to fire non-performing teachers and school administrators, who are largely protected under the state’s existing system, which equates to a type of tenure system in its protection of teachers.

When the contract provision came before the Senate, all 20 of that committee’s Democrats voted against it, and two Republicans declined to vote, thereby killing the bill.

Conservatives often find themselves portrayed as being anti-education on the strength of their calls for fiscal responsibility and achievement accountability. These bills will do nothing to change the opinions of those who believe this old trope.

But Virginia, much like the rest of the nation, has real problems in its public school systems. Even a cursory review of test scores reveals it to be true. And the Republicans’ bills would at least have done something to shake up the old order that has resulted in America losing its place at the top of the world’s educational pecking order.

By voting in lockstep against these efforts, Virginia’s Democrats have proved they’re less interested in providing first-rate educational opportunity for the commonwealth’s children than they are in protecting the jobs of ineffective teachers and the funding of failing school systems.

Until we see the Democrats come to the table with an idea for education that doesn’t merely suggest taxpayers throw more money down a hole, we’ll be hard pressed to agree they are the true defenders of education.