The governor’s education plan for Virginia

January 15, 2012

VIRGINIA GOV. Robert F. McDonnell (R) began the second half of his term outlining an expansive agenda to remake public education. He is on solid ground in wanting to give parents more choices, improve teacher quality and keep students in school longer. His willingness to take on entrenched interests should be applauded and, we hope, followed by the General Assembly when it considers the proposed legislation.

Mr. McDonnell, whose biennium budget includes $438 million for teacher retirement costs and other funding for kindergarten through 12th grade, unveiled a series of initiatives aimed at increasing school rigor and providing more learning alternatives. These include tightening regulations to end social promotion, better accountability on how school monies are spent and more flexibility for districts to remove ineffective teachers by ending Virginia’s practice of continuing contracts, which is akin to tenure.

“You perform well, you keep your job. You don’t perform well for an extended period of time, you don’t get a guarantee,” was Mr. McDonnell’s common-sense argument. The success of the initiative will depend upon the strength of a more rigorous evaluation system, the details of which have yet to be fleshed out, and expected opposition from the Virginia Education Association, representing the teachers.

Particularly noteworthy is the governor’s aim to empower parents by giving them more educational choices. He would give tax credits to businesses that provide scholarships for children from low-income families to attend private schools, would encourage virtual schools as a new approach to learning and would provide more support to charter schools. The Republican governor is to be commended for aligning himself with President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan in his support of charters, but we wish he had gone further in removing the barriers that have made Virginia so inhospitable to charters. The governor’s plan would establish a technical advisory committee to help charter-school applicants develop their plans and ensure they get a fair share of public resources, but it does not break the stranglehold that local school divisions have in authorizing start-up of charters.

Mr. McDonnell also deserves credit for supporting repeal of the archaic state law that prohibits school districts from opening before Labor Day without special waivers from the state. The so-called Kings Dominion law (after the amusement park) enjoys the strong support of the state’s tourism industry. That the governor recognized the absurdity of a law that actually inhibits schools in when they can hold classes is a good first step in what we hope will be an effort to increase instruction time.

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