School reforms earn mediocre marks

Published 9:41 pm Friday, April 5, 2013

Governor Bob McDonnell is celebrating the final outcome of his push this legislative session to reform education, but a group representing those who set policies for Virginia’s public schools on the local level has a different take.

After Wednesday’s Virginia General Assembly veto session, much of the governor’s reform agenda has emerged intact, with one notable exception.

“Starting July 1, with the support of the Virginia Education Association and other key Virginia education leadership groups, we will effectively end teacher tenure in Virginia’s public schools, holding teachers to higher standards, while also rewarding our great teachers with a 2-percent pay raise and additional performance pay incentives,” the governor stated in a press release.

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The measure McDonnell cited will — for school districts that take up the offer — provide a state-funded raise for Standards of Quality teachers.

But it is contingent tying pay to performance — a reason cited by Suffolk public school officials for declining the offer. The local school division also would need extra local money to provide an equivalent raise for other teachers in the interest of fairness.

Wendy Forsman, finance director of Suffolk’s school district, reported the across-the-board raise would cost $1.4 million, requiring $655,468 in local funds.

During a press conference Thursday, its lobbyist Pat Lacy said the Virginia School Boards Association would ask lawmakers to direct the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to “conduct a comprehensive review of the funding of the Standards of Quality” — last done more than a decade ago.

“It is time to conduct such a study to rectify the funding imbalance that currently exists in the funding of public education in Virginia,” Lacy said, noting that inflation-adjusted state per-pupil funding for SOQ education has dropped from $5,274 in 2009 to $4,240 in 2014.

“Although the Virginia education system ranks fourth in the United States … it only ranks 37th in funding.”

As was Suffolk’s School Superintendent Deran Whitney, VSBA board member Juandiego R. Wade was critical of the new A-F school grading system, which McDonnell claims will result in “transparent school report cards.”

“A single grade doesn’t provide parents and partners with adequate and transparent information that they need,” Wade said. “Labeling a school with a single grade will mask the successes and challenges that stakeholders need to be aware of to foster continual improvement.”

But Wade, again in line with Whitney’s earlier commentary, said the VSBA is “encouraged” by measures that give school boards more flexibility to assign librarians, guidance counselors and clerical staff within schools according to needs.

Michael Debranski, chairman of the Suffolk School Board, considers A-F grading unnecessary. “It think the (current) system makes sense to most people,” he said. “It’s not that difficult.”

The increased staffing flexibility, he said, is “a really good idea. Who better knows where to put them than the school systems?”

Meanwhile, in conceivably the biggest derailment of McDonnell’s education reform package, the Republican-controlled House of Delegates retained in the state budget only $150,000 — a fraction of his request — to create a new statewide division for schools that repeatedly fail to meet academic benchmarks.

The measure would not have removed any Suffolk schools from local control, but given that two are currently accredited with warning, it could have done so in the future.

The Senate also killed changes to legislation related to the plan, dubbed the Opportunity Educational Institution.

Debranski noted that only two of the state’s public schools would today have been subject to the takeover. “To do all this for two schools doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.