Jay Mathews on Campaign Promises and Virginia Schools

By Jay Mathews
Monday, October 12, 2009

Political candidates, like the two gentlemen running for governor of Virginia, are always sincere about their education platforms. Their to-do lists are long. Their concern about the state's children is deep. But the proposals they offer, like more efficiency at school headquarters or more pay for teachers, seem to be focused on appealing to voters and not improving schools.

That doesn't mean everything the Virginia candidates suggest is a waste of time. Democrat Creigh Deeds's idea for state scholarships for students who have B averages in high school and promise to work in the public sector is a smart way to address our national failure to get all promising students into college. I also like Republican Bob McDonnell's plan to rescue public charter school organizers from the knee-jerk resistance of local school boards by setting up independent charter authorizers or barring school boards from blocking charters if some district schools are not fully accredited.

Still, when I have found schools improving, it rarely has been because of an initiative from the governor's office. The people who make the difference usually work in local schools and school districts, not in Richmond.

I have been covering schools from an office in Virginia for 12 years. I can think of only two gubernatorial acts that really helped raise achievement. One was Gov. George Allen's creation of the Standards of Learning and their related exams, a model for innovators elsewhere. The other was Gov. Mark Warner's 2004 tax package that made possible the largest single state investment in K-12 education in Virginia history.

Just about everything else that had any major effect came from educators and school board members in Northern Virginia, who were following their own instincts. My picks for best moves since 1997 include Fairfax County's decision to open honors and college-level classes to all students willing to work hard; Arlington County's focus on narrowing the achievement gap between minority and white students; Alexandria's turnaround of its worst school, Maury Elementary; Prince William County's introduction of Cambridge courses in high school; Falls Church's pioneering of the International Baccalaureate; and Loudoun County's opening of its own small but energetic Academy of Science to compete with the regional supermagnet high school, Jefferson.

Whichever Virginia candidate wins will do his best for kids, even if much of what is being proposed is standard American campaign pap. Both want to raise teachers salaries, a wonderful idea, but neither presents a realistic plan to pay for that. Both support school-business partnerships to prepare students for the real world but don't say how they are going to solve the old problem that neither business executives nor educators have the time or energy to make such plans work. Both want to reduce dropout rates but cite no examples of this happening recently in any significant way, given the drag of poverty on many children's lives.

Reading the Virginia candidates' Web sites and listening to their debates, I wonder why they don't spend more time telling Virginians how much the state already has done for its schools, after years of hard work by people from both parties and many who don't much care for politics at all.

Virginia ranks eighth in the country on the Education Week's Chance-for-Success Index of state conditions that support educational progress. It has long been in the top 10 in college-level test participation in high school. The Fordham Foundation declared Virginia's learning standards "among the best in the nation" and remarked on its unusual commitment to testing students in science and social studies, not just math and reading.

The candidates have to help voters make a decision, so it is no surprise they try to distinguish themselves from each other, rather than point out how similar their education platforms are. Both support annual testing to make schools accountable. Both favor charter schools. Both want to address the needs of low-income students who struggle to prepare for college. Both want to raise teacher quality.

That is what I call the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama school improvement plan. Every president in the past two decades has stood behind it, more or less. Deeds and McDonnell are part of that tradition.

Here is something to remember on Election Day. I have analyzed educational data from all over the country, looking for another region with schools as good as those in Northern Virginia. There aren't any. This is partly because of high incomes but also because of hard work and wise policies.

The gubernatorial candidates must focus on what needs fixing, but that shouldn't stop voters, when they walk into their polling place at the neighborhood school this November, from looking around and feeling good about the great job Virginia educators have done.

E-mail Jay at mathewsj@washpost.comor try his blog at www.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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