But on some signature issues, he fell short of his promise to transform public education, reformers said. His initial attempt to make it easier to fire teachers was defeated, and his plan for performance-based pay was only partially funded. Statewide, there still are only four charter schools.
His overall record has alarmed many of Virginia’s Democratic lawmakers and educators, who say a shift toward private alternatives could undermine the state’s public schools. But nationally, reform activists say they are frustrated that despite an explosion of education innovations during the past four years, Virginia still lags behind other states.
Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, called Virginia “a black mark for the movement” and McDonnell’s leadership “extremely disappointing.”
But the governor’s calls for change seemed misplaced to many Virginians, who are proud of their school systems, their early adoption of rigorous academic standards and their high national rankings. Education Week placed Virginia No. 4 in the nation this year for its overall student achievement and education policies — an accolade often cited in Richmond. Some argued that what the schools need are more resources to better achieve standards already in place; Virginia ranks 38th in the country for its share of per-pupil funding.
“When you have the fourth-ranked education state, it’s an uphill battle to educate folks on something completely different,” said Javaid Siddiqi, Virginia’s deputy secretary for education. “But there is a significantly different conversation happening around charter schools and [public education] than there was” four years ago.
The lack of urgency is fueled by nationally renowned suburban school systems that largely foot the bill for local schools and “do not like being challenged” as well as an overall climate where people “want to focus on things that are going well,” said Andrew Rotherham, an education consultant and former member of the state Board of Education.
Less often noted are trouble spots. Only one in five African American eighth-graders, for example, scored proficient or better on a national mathematics test.
McDonnell’s administration ran counter to reformers early in the governor’s term. The federal government’s 2010 Race to the Top competition sent dozens of states scrambling to adopt national academic standards or education policies that link teacher evaluations to test scores.