February 19, 2013

CRITICS OF A PLAN by Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) that would allow the state to take over chronically failing schools argue that local officials should be given more time to get things right. Never mind that these schools have been pretty bad for a pretty long period or time. Or that the one thing students in these abysmal classrooms can ill-afford is more time. Mr. McDonnell’s plan may be in need of some fine-tuning, but he is clearly right in insisting on real consequences for schools that habitually cannot meet targets for student achievement.

Legislation that would create a statewide school division to oversee chronically low-achieving schools is up for final reading in both houses Wednesday. The proposal is part of Mr. McDonnell’s ambitious agenda this year for education reform, which also includes a new A-to-F grading system for schools and the removal of barriers that have kept Teach for America from operating in the state. “Common-sense, results-oriented and student-focused” is how a governor’s spokesman characterized the changes.

Provoking the most controversy has been the proposal to establish a statewide Opportunity Educational Institution that would take over schools unable to meet state accreditation requirements for three consecutive years. Four schools, including Jefferson-Houston Elementary School in Alexandria, are currently eligible, and two more, on the state warning list, are threatened. Modeled after programs that have proved successful in Michigan and Louisiana, the proposal would give the new state division the power to make personnel decisions, bring in turnaround experts or contract with charter networks or institutions of higher learning in managing the schools, actions that local school officials are unwilling or unable to do. Not only would Virginia be able to do more than plead and prod but the change would also put all schools on notice that there will be consequences for failure.

School improvement won’t come overnight and there is no magic wand. That’s why the means for implementing this plan are crucial; local communities will need to be involved. There are details to work out, and additional attention should be paid to whether the financing, a shift of local tax dollars to the state with no additional investment, could shortchange some of the very schools in need. But to suggest, as is being argued by opponents in the Senate, that the plan be put on hold and “studied” for another year is to ignore the urgency of change for schools where, year after year, students who can’t read, write and do math dwarf the numbers of those who can. Mr. McDonnell is correct: “The time for tolerance of failing schools is over.”