Sunday, February 03, 2013
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Christina Nuckols: Rescuing Virginia's failing schools

Christina Nuckols

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Christina Nuckols grew up in the Shenandoah Valley and worked at several newspapers in western Virginia, including The Roanoke Times, before moving to Richmond to cover state government and politics. After 14 years at the state Capitol, she returned to Roanoke in 2011 to become the editorial page editor. christina. nuckols@roanoke.com | 981-3377

From the RoundTable blog

In September 2010, I sat in a Petersburg school auditorium as about 100 parents, teachers, city leaders and state legislators discussed whether to support a proposed charter school in that community.

One teacher told the group, "We're actually in pretty good shape, and I say that as a teacher, with a lot of room to grow. Petersburg is not doing all that bad."

I cringed. Fifty-one percent of students in the city's middle school had failed the most recent standardized math test. The failure rate in math last year was 57 percent, and the school has now been unaccredited for seven straight years.

The charter school was rejected despite Gov. Bob McDonnell's support. The state constitution prevents him from forcing a charter school on an unwilling community. I wondered whether he was secretly glad not to have responsibility for schools suffering from many years of neglect. I've now traded in my cynicism for a mix of excitement and anxiety.

McDonnell has proposed legislation this year that would create a statewide school division with the power to take over management of chronically under-performing schools. I'm excited because it's rare for legislators to talk about failing schools. They like to brag about the commonwealth's academic successes, but don't want to admit we're cheating thousands of children out of an adequate education and a productive life.

I'm anxious because it's not clear how McDonnell and legislators are going to tackle the problem.

Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, said he, too, had doubts when the governor asked him to sponsor the House version of the bill. Habeeb, who also is pushing to give school boards flexibility with their academic calendars, said he wasn't sure the concept fit with his preference for local control. But he ultimately agreed to carry the bill.

"The state doesn't want to take over schools," he said. "The state wants to take responsibility. We have a moral obligation."

At least four schools — two in Norfolk and one each in Petersburg and Alexandria — are candidates to become wards of the new school division. The division would be overseen by an 11-member board of legislators, educators and citizens with the authority to hire and fire teachers and staff.

State officials have no experience operating schools, a task made more difficult when they are scattered across the commonwealth. The board would likely turn over management to a charter school company, a university or some private entity.

"We are getting into unchartered territory," Habeeb acknowledged.

Many education groups bristle at the idea of charter schools, fearing they will drain resources from traditional schools. There are good charter schools and many lousy ones. Even the best ones aren't equipped to hurdle all of the institutional barriers that inhibit academic excellence in Virginia.

Charter schools can bring in skilled leadership teams with experience in turning around troubled schools. They have the potential to attract top-quality teachers, although that's not a certainty.

What they can't do is wipe away the gaping disparities that exist in Virginia because its schools are so heavily dependent on local property taxes. It's a system that ensures children in poverty who need the greatest resources are least likely to have access to extra assistance.

Inevitably, the governor's plan has gotten bogged down in a fight over money. Cities and counties spent $6.5 billion on public schools last year, $3.4 billion of it above what state formulas say is required for an adequate education. Local governments fear McDonnell would commandeer some of those extra dollars. Habeeb says that's not his intent, but he also acknowledges that without the supplementary local aid, schools under the state umbrella would be at a financial disadvantage compared to locally managed schools.

And that brings us to the key question. Will state officials be willing to invest the money necessary to rescue schools once they're in charge? Habeeb says he's optimistic, but he says his bill and the funding for it are still works in progress.

I give him and McDonnell credit for having the guts to confront the problem. I hope they can find a way to join with local officials and education advocates on a workable solution.

Nuckols is editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times.

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