Virginia's latest attempt to secede from the United States

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, July 23, 2010

For a state that was instrumental in creating the federal government, Virginia seems to have been regretting it ever since.

There was, of course, all that unpleasantness over slavery and states' rights that most of us assumed had been sorted out on the battlefields of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and the steps of the Appomattox Courthouse.

And then there was Sen. Harry F. Byrd, who dominated Virginia politics during the first half of the 20th century. Byrd was a Democrat who never quite accepted the New Deal, opposed the interstate highway system and advocated "massive resistance" to public school desegregation.

More recently, the Virginia legislature dusted off the old "nullification doctrine" and declared that no Virginian shall be subject to the new federal law requiring all Americans to buy health insurance. Attorney General Ken "Show Us the Birth Certificate" Cuccinelli rushed into federal court to challenge the constitutionality of the landmark legislation.

Now, Virginia will bring its battle against federal authority right into the classroom with its decision to opt out of the movement to establish national standards for educational proficiency for elementary and high school students.

This is a rather odd way for a state to convince foreign investors and multinational corporations of its winning business climate. You can just imagine the billboards along the Stonewall Jackson Highway: "Come to Virginia -- A Great Way to Escape the United States!"

I realize there are some people who get up every morning with an uncontrollable urge to defend the 10th Amendment, but the anecdotal evidence -- Texas and South Carolina come to mind-- does not suggest that resistance to federal authority leads to high per capita income. Indeed, most corporate executives I know rather like the idea of a national market with a single set of rules. They also have a strong preference for healthy, well-educated workers.

And am I the only one who finds it a bit odd that a state whose economic growth has been so dependent on the growth of federal contracts and the federal payroll should be so hostile to any expansion of federal activity?

The refusal of Virginia to embrace national education standards is a perfect example of the triumph of politics over economic reality.

Ever since the passage of the No Child Left Behind law, states have had to show steady improvement in the percentage of their students deemed proficient in English and math. In deference to local control over education, states were allowed to set their own proficiency standards and design their own standardized tests. As you might expect, some states have met their goals by setting standards that were less than rigorous.

With the support of governors and educators, the Obama administration sought a set of common standards developed not by federal bureaucrats but by collaboration among educators and state officials. To encourage their adoption, the administration made them key criteria in the doling out of $100 billion in "stimulus" funds.

In the first round of that competition, known as the "Race to the Top," Virginia came in well out of the money, placing 31st out of the 41 states that applied. Evaluators found that a majority of Virginia's school districts were hostile to charter schools and deficient in the way they evaluated teachers and principals and dealt with chronically underperforming schools. Yet even before the second round, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) announced that Virginia would drop out of the competition, citing his opposition to national proficiency standards that would be less rigorous than what the state was already using.

That was a curious claim, given that, at the time, the final standards had not yet been released. A subsequent analysis by the respected Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that Virginia's standards weren't more rigorous, and in the case of the math standards, they were just "mediocre." McDonnell's boast was also undercut by the result of the national tests, which showed significantly lower marks for Virginia students than they were scoring on the state's own tests.

These days, the state schools superintendent, Patricia Wright, acknowledges that the national standards and Virginia's are "comparable," and that the differences between them are so "subtle" that there is no reason for the state to toss aside the curriculum, the tests and the teacher evaluation systems that have been developed around its standards over the past 15 years.

On the other hand, if the differences are so subtle, it doesn't seem like it should take much effort or cause much disruption to move to the national standards -- particularly if it could unlock $250 million in additional federal funds while ensuring that Virginia students in the future are benchmarked to competitive national standards.

"I'm disappointed," said Ed Hatrick, Loudoun County's schools superintendent. "The world has shrunk to the point that we certainly don't need 50 different versions of what it means to master Algebra I." Hatrick's view was shared by several other superintendents from Northern Virginia who I contacted this week.

Within the next few weeks, 39 states are expected to have adopted national education standards. National standards are not a panacea, but they surely are a necessary step in bringing more accountability to public education and assuring the competitiveness of American workers.

Virginia voters and politicians may continue to harbor fantasies that they can secede from the United States, but like it or not, there is no way to secede from the global economy.

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