Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said Tuesday that he will not appeal a circuit court’s ruling that struck down a newly created state board specializing in school takeovers as being unconstitutional.
His decision effectively neutralizes state lawmakers’ efforts to hand control of the state’s worst-performing public schools to universities or private charter groups.
In a statement, the governor said he will not fight a June 10 ruling by Norfolk Circuit Court Judge Charles E. Poston declaring the state’s Opportunity Educational Institution (OEI) unconstitutional. The OEI was championed by the former governor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), and established by the Virginia General Assembly in 2013 to encourage intervention in the state’s struggling public schools. Six schools, including Alexandria’s Jefferson-Houston School, near Old Town, and three in Norfolk, were among thosethat faced possible takeover in the fall.
“The Constitution of Virginia clearly gives the primary responsibility for educating Virginia children to local school boards across the Commonwealth,” said McAuliffe (D). “Unfortunately, the statute that established the OEI altered these relationships in significant and unconstitutional ways.”
Local superintendents, school boards and teachers across the state overwhelmingly opposed the OEI. Karen A. Graf, chairman of the Alexandria School Board, said the administration vehemently argued against creating the organization.
“We’re relieved,” Graf said. “We believe it was unconstitutional because it usurped the power of local school boards. We’re really excited we won’t have to deal with that poorly written legislation.”
Under the law founding the OEI, the state-led turnaround board would have had outside control of local schools that failed to earn accreditation. In recent years, reform efforts in New York and the District led city administrations to take over leadership of their school systems.
But Poston ruled that such an arrangement in Virginia would have violated state law, which grants the overall authority of creating school divisions to the Virginia Board of Education, not the General Assembly.
The OEI “is not constitutional because it purports to establish a statewide school division and because it purports to create a school division that is not supervised by a school board,” Poston wrote.
When the Virginia School Boards Association and the Norfolk City School Board filed a lawsuit against the OEI, then-Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) decided not to fight the case. McDonnell hired a private law firm to oppose the suit.
Announcing his decision Tuesday, McAuliffe said he has asked the state’s secretary of education to form a task force to address the best ways to help underperforming schools.
“There is no question that we must work together to ensure that every single Virginia student has access to a world-class education in a public school, and I am confident there is a better way forward,” McAuliffe said.
Graf said that Jefferson-Houston, which teaches about 360 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, has long struggled to meet state performance goals.
She said the administration is seeking new leadership for the school and aims to hire a principal who has experience in turnarounds. The school’s former principal, Rosalyn Rice-Harris, will stay on as a deputy overseeing academics.