Why is Cuccinelli hiding his good work for schools?

Jay Mathews
Columnist September 1, 2013

Before considering school improvement proposals from the candidates for Virginia governor, I have a question: Why is Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate, saying nothing about his timely and crucial support for low-income students’ access to the two most important high school programs in Northern Virginia?

I think I know why. Candidates often miss the point when talking about education. They — or more precisely, the political advisers they depend on — are more interested in promoting what moves voters than what helps kids.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

In 2009, as the recession left schools with big deficits, the Fairfax County School Board announced a major blow to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, which had done more to improve high schools than any other programs in the region. The board said that starting in 2011, students would have to pay $75 for every AP or IB exam, reversing its 11-year-old no-fee policy that had fueled a huge jump in AP and IB participation.

Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, came to the rescue. He ruled that the fees violated Virginia’s constitution. Thus, Northern Virginia continued to have the nation’s highest participation in college-level courses, for rich and poor.

Why hasn’t Cuccinelli mentioned this? His spokeswoman, Anna Nix, said he is focused on helping Virginia’s children today, “not on past battles already fought and won.” A more likely explanation is that his ruling got little publicity and that most of those who benefited don’t vote.

Both Cuccinelli and his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, have good ideas about schools. McAuliffe’s support for better salaries and fewer non-instructional chores for teachers makes sense. Cuccinelli’s plan to stop school boards from blocking charter schools would give more great teachers a chance to create their own programs.

But, as usual in American politics, the candidates are also pushing ideas that sound intriguing but will do little. Both want revisions to the annual Standards of Learning tests, an attractive proposal to the many voters who consider the annual tests a burden, but in reality a dead end.

History shows that changing tests doesn’t improve achievement; giving more support and time for teaching does. The candidates should be discussing their ideas for making that happen, rather than indulging our age-old national habit of venting about tests.

Cuccinelli might also rethink his embrace of the newly fashionable parent trigger, in place in California and under consideration in other states. Under his plan, if enough parents at a struggling school sign a petition, they could close the school, replace its leadership, convert it to a charter school or offer tax-supported vouchers for students to attend private schools. It is one of the clumsiest reform ideas ever. Dissident parents in distressed neighborhoods don’t have the time or expertise to unite behind reforms that work.

The charter growth that Cuccinelli supports is a quicker and more effective way to give such parents an alternative. He also has good ideas about making engineering courses more available and giving regular schools a chance to be as creative as charters can be.

McAuliffe has intriguing proposals for improving community colleges, which need more funds and better-designed courses to fill their role as the most promising option for students who discover in their 20s that they are finally ready to study. McAuliffe’s workforce development proposals are smart and doable.

If only both candidates would delete the clunkers on their Web sites and promote programs they know are good, even those dismissed by their advisers as too obscure to win elections.

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