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Fair warning on McDonnell school reform
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Pat Lacy offers a rare and valuable perspective on matters related to education and law in Virginia. The longtime attorney is well known and well connected in Richmond, and he’s particularly familiar with the Virginia Constitution.
Lacy worked in the attorney general’s office in 1971, when Virginia enacted its new constitution. Over the next six years, as he worked his way up to chief deputy attorney general, he handled constitutional cases and had a front seat in the office that crafted opinions interpreting sections of the new governing document.
Those credentials provided little help last week, as he told members of the Senate Education and Health Committee that the charter school bill before them was “abominably drafted.” The proposal, a key part of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s education reform agenda, passed the Republican-leaning committee on an 8-to-7, party-line vote.
It was par for the course for a committee that has shown, time and again, a knack for brushing aside experts whose views don’t comport with members’ political dogma.
Last year, the same committee swung its support behind personhood and mandatory-ultrasound bills, despite the objections of doctor after doctor, and despite the lack of evidence proving either achieved what lawmakers hoped they would.
This year, it was educators’ turn to protest. Lacy’s testimony was particularly compelling.
Speaking on behalf of the Virginia School Boards Association, Lacy pointed out specific structural problems within the bill, including using a law specific to higher education to authorize a board to oversee turnaround efforts at perpetually failing public schools. Naturally, the board would consist mostly of lawmakers and gubernatorial appointees, who would dictate how local money is spent to educate students at the schools.
And he asked a question that begged a reasonable answer: If this bill is constitutional, why are proponents simultaneously pushing a proposed constitutional amendment to achieve a similar end?
“Having been around when the constitution was written,” he told the panel, “this law is unconstitutional.”
During the same meeting, committee members heard another bill, also part of the governor’s plan, designed to boil down the complicated process of evaluating schools’ performance by assigning a simple A through F grade. It’s modeled after an approach approved in Louisiana in 2010. An Education Week report recently ranked Louisiana 23rd nationally among top public school systems. Last year, with charter schools proliferating across the state, a third of Louisiana’s public schools still received a D or F.
In the same ranking, Virginia’s public school system scored fourth, behind Massachusetts, New York and Maryland. What sense does it make then for Virginia, with one of the best systems in the country, to start following a model employed by a state far behind?
Educators insisted the bill was unnecessary, that it applied an oversimplified strategy for a complex problem. It inserted more uncertainty into public schools than it would eliminate, essentially creating an environment that doubles down on testing and grades instead of critical thought and development.
“All this is,” said Jim Baldwin, executive director of the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals, “is a set-up for failure.”
And for more charter schools.
Democratic Sen. Dick Saslaw opposed both bills. He pointed out how unusual it was for a public policy proposal to galvanize teachers, administrators, school boards and others.
“Should we just ignore them because they don’t know what they’re talking about?” he asked the Republican chairman, Sen. Steve Martin.
Martin ignored him.
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