Virginia statewide school takeover board ruled unconstitutional by Norfolk judge

A Norfolk Circuit Court ruled Tuesday that a statewide school takeover board created by the Virginia General Assembly to manage struggling schools is not constitutional.

Judge Charles E. Poston said that Virginia’s constitution vests the authority to establish school divisions in the Board of Education, not the General Assembly, and gives local school boards the authority to supervise the schools.

The so-called Opportunity Educational Institution was championed by former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and passed by the General Assembly last year amid protests by many statewide education groups and local school districts.

Under the law, any school denied state accreditation or accredited with warning for three consecutive years could be taken into a statewide school district.

Norfolk would be the hardest hit school district initially — with as many as three schools in jeopardy of a state takeover. In Alexandria, Jefferson Houston School would also be eligible for a state takeover.

Norfolk Public Schools and the Virginia School Boards Association filed suit against the state last fall to challenge the constitutional underpinnings of the state board.

“This ruling is an important affirmation of the Virginia Constitution’s intent that localities hold the responsibility for their public schools,” said Gina G. Patterson, executive director of the Virginia School Boards Association. “With that being said, there is still much work to be done to ensure that all of our schools are successful.”

More than 100 school boards and municipal governing boards passed resolutions in support of the suit, including Alexandria’s school board.

In a unanimous vote last September, the board adopted a resolution stating that the “Opportunity Education Institution” legislation “usurps the role of local school boards in supervising and managing the public schools.”

Norfolk school board chairman Kirk Houston said in a statement Tuesday that he was “pleased” with the ruling.

“We value our strong partnership with Virginia elected and appointed leaders, however, state takeover of schools was not going to be a magic formula for addressing challenges with student achievement, particularly in high-poverty schools,” he said.

The state could appeal the decision to a higher court.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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