Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) said yesterday that his major initiative as chairman of the National Governors Association will be a campaign to reform American high schools and make the senior year more meaningful.
Speaking at Fairfax County's George C. Marshall High School, Warner called 12th grade "one of the most important transition years in education" but said too many seniors slack off and waste the time.
As one cure for "senior slump," Warner said, seniors should be allowed to receive college credit, thus saving some of their college tuition and trimming states' higher education budgets. He said he expects to announce a deal soon in which Virginia's public universities will accept credit for a set of common classes offered at community colleges.
In addition, Warner said better partnerships between schools and business groups would allow more students to gain industry certifications in high school if they plan to go directly to work.
"Whether you're college-bound or career-bound, we need to make sure the senior year is much more valuable," he said.
Warner, who took over as head of the bipartisan governors association in July, plans to hold town hall meetings on high school reform in the next year and convene an education summit with U.S. governors in February. By the time the association has its annual meeting next summer, he said, the group will have surveyed 10,000 high school students about their thoughts on reform.
Besides providing an outline of his plans, the announcement was another chance for Warner to take the national stage as the clock runs out on his four-year term as governor.
He is prohibited by law from serving two consecutive terms. His political allies say he could be tapped for a Cabinet position if Sen. John F. Kerry wins the White House. Warner could run again for the U.S. Senate. He lost his first Senate race in 1996.
As chairman of the governors association, Warner hopes to export his reputation for bipartisan, businesslike governance on a wider scale. It has worked in Virginia, where his successful collaboration with moderate Republicans during this year's tax fight boosted his soaring approval ratings.
Advisers say the governor's push to reform the senior year of high school gives him the opportunity to do what he does best: apply common sense ideas to a vexing problem. He said yesterday he hopes to bring "tangible, real solutions that can be implemented in a short period of time" to high school reform.
The largely nonpartisan issue also allows Warner to play down politics. He will be joined by two Republicans -- Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft -- as well as Maine Gov. John E. Baldacci (D) on a task force to flesh out his ideas. President Bush also has called for raising performance in high schools, letting Warner declare that the issue will be a focus in Washington no matter who is elected in November.
Gerald Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said he is thrilled that Warner is putting a national spotlight on high schools, which he called the "stepchild of the school reform movement."
Warner made his announcement to an audience of educators, policymakers and students. Marshall High School is the alma mater of his wife, Lisa Collis, and before he left, a school official cracked open a high school yearbook so Warner could see her senior photo.
He fielded questions from about 30 Marshall seniors, whose suggestions ranged from reserving more spots at top public colleges for in-state students to implementing a high school nap time.
He told the students that Marshall, with its array of advanced courses as well as an in-school academy aimed at students enrolled in career and technical education, represents the best of Virginia schools. His education initiative also allows him to continue courting poor and rural communities, where such varied programs for seniors don't exist. Warner's success in wooing those parts of Virginia helped him win the governorship in 2001.
Robert G. Templin Jr., president of Northern Virginia Community College, said giving students access to higher education earlier -- which could allow many to graduate from college in less than four years -- is a practical necessity as experts predict that far more students are preparing to apply to college than space will allow.
"The question looms before us," Templin said, "where will our children go to college?"
A plan to expand college credit sounded like a good idea to Robert Carlson, 17, one of the students who spoke with Warner. He fears that his top choice colleges, including Duke University and the University of Virginia, will not honor the advanced classes he is taking at Marshall. "I'm doing six hours of homework a night and getting five hours of sleep, and there's no college credit for it," he said.