McDonnell withdraws Virginia from Obama's Race to the Top school reform program

By Nick Anderson and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 27, 2010; B04

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell pulled Virginia out of President Obama's Race to the Top school reform derby Wednesday, a turnabout after he had pushed hard for the state to get a share of the $4 billion in federal funding.

In March, Virginia finished a disappointing 31st out of 41 competitors in the first round of the competition. Delaware and Tennessee were the first winners; the District finished 16th. Maryland did not compete in the first round but plans to do so in the second.

Virginia's withdrawal, days before the Tuesday deadline for second-round applications, was not a surprise. The state has been quiet on school policy in recent weeks while others have approved new laws or regulations to align with Obama's reform agenda. The president is pushing for states to overhaul teacher evaluation, move toward performance pay, improve low-performing schools and raise academic standards.

On Tuesday, Maryland's State Board of Education endorsed a proposal for common academic standards in math and English language arts developed at the instigation of governors and state schools chiefs across the country. That endorsement could help Maryland win points on its application.

McDonnell (R) cited the common standards initiative as a key reason for the withdrawal. He said the state would not abandon its benchmarks, known as the Standards of Learning.

"The problem is that the way they have structured this program to mandate that we adopt a common core of standards to replace the Standards of Learning is unacceptable," McDonnell told reporters in Richmond. "We can't go back. We've been working on this for 15 years. Our standards are much superior. They're well accepted. They're validated. All the education leaders have a comfort level with those. So once again, a federal mandate to adopt a federal common core standard is just not something I can accept, nor can most of the education leaders in Virginia, nor can most of the legislators."

McDonnell said he supported other elements of Obama's agenda, including expansion of high-quality charter schools and performance pay. For those reasons, he had lobbied for the state's bid in the first round. The General Assembly approved legislation to help promote charter schools.

In the Race to the Top, adoption of common standards counts for 20 points out of a possible 500. Virginia lost points in the first round on several other criteria as well. But Patricia I. Wright, the state superintendent of public instruction, told reporters in a conference call that it was clear that the state would lose points in various ways because of its stance on standards.

Wright said that she was "distraught" at the inability to compete but that she supported the withdrawal. "We, collectively, in Virginia have made the decision that substituting the common core standards for our Standards of Learning is not a prudent thing to do," she said.

Many states are expected to adopt the common standards after the final proposal is released next week by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

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