What next for failing schools?

Published 8:10 pm Wednesday, June 11, 2014

By STEVE STEWART

 

As a constitutional matter, a Norfolk judge probably got it right Tuesday when he blew the whistle on state efforts to take over chronically underperforming Virginia schools.

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The Opportunity Educational Institution, created by the General Assembly last year, was a cornerstone of former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s education-reform plan. The statewide school division would take over six schools in Norfolk, Petersburg and Alexandria (and others going forward) that consistently fail to meet state accreditation standards.

But the combination of meager funding from lawmakers and Circuit Judge Charles Poston’s Thursday ruling have stymied the new entity and cemented control of failing schools by the cities that let them deteriorate in the first place.

Thus the conundrum: Can localities that by all rights own and govern their public schools be trusted to fix problems of their own making?

McDonnell’s heart unquestionably was in the right place. No Virginia child should get an inadequate education simply because of where his parents choose to live.

These are not schools that simply had a bad year on their Standards of Learning tests. They have repeatedly fallen short of accreditation standards over the course of several years, with no signs of improvement.

McDonnell’s initiative both posed and answered the question: When is enough enough? How long does a locality to have to get a school up to par before the state steps in?

Apparently, the answer under the Virginia constitution, which Poston cited in striking down the new law, is “indefinitely.” The state can sanction and chide a local school division all it wants, but it cannot remove the administration and take over a school.

Fair enough if, like me, you believe that governance closest to home is the best kind of governance. But Poston’s ruling forces Virginia to confront again the issue that prompted McDonnell’s legislation in the first place: What to do when a locality repeatedly fails to correct a problem as serious as a failing public school.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s response to Poston’s ruling inspired little confidence.

“My team and I are evaluating today’s ruling and will make a decision about next steps soon,” McAuliffe said in a prepared statement. “Regardless of today’s ruling, Secretary Anne Holton, Superintendent of Public Instruction Steve Staples and my entire administration are committed to working in a collaborative way with local school divisions and the Board of Education to improve outcomes in all communities, and particularly in our struggling schools. We absolutely have to do better by the children in these schools.

“Reducing the achievement gap is a top priority for me and my entire team. It will require working together with the Virginia Department of Education, local school divisions, other state and local agencies and communities to ensure our youngsters have the best chance for success.”

McAuliffe will soon have to most past generalities and get specific if he is to achieve his goal of closing the achievement gap. His predecessor at least tried something bold and innovative — but, unfortunately, illegal.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is steve.stewart@suffolknewsherald.com.