RICHMOND — Key parts of Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s education initiatives received approval in the Virginia General Assembly on Monday, including a measure that would overhaul teacher accountability and another that would simplify the rating of public schools by using letter grades.
The Senate, on a 40-0 vote, approved the governor’s “Educator Fairness Act” to allow local school boards to extend the probationary window for teachers from three to up to five years before they could receive “continuing contract” status – a form of job protection that is similar to but less binding than lifetime tenure.
Teachers, assistant principals and principals would receive annual performance evaluations that would include some measurement of students’ academic progress. The bill — SB1223 sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Thomas N. Norment, Jr. (R-James City) — also would provide a definition of incompetence that includes one or more unsatisfactory performance evaluations, tie evaluations to continuing contract status, and streamline the grievance procedure.
McDonnell, in a written statement, said the bills would “help ensure that our children always have the most effective educators possible in the classroom.”
A companion measure — HB2151 sponsored by Del. Richard P. “Dickie” Bell (R-Staunton) — passed the House of Delegates last week by a vote of 84-14.
The House on Monday also approved a bill that would rate schools using letter grades from A to F for their overall performance.
“Everybody knows what A through F means,” said House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights). “So I think it just gives parents a better indication of where the schools are at.”
Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), who joined the Republican majority in supporting the school grading system, said the current rating system for schools was “obtuse and opaque” and particularly difficult for lower-income families and recent immigrants to wade through.
“I’m a believer in sunshine,” Surovell said. “It’s my hope that getting this information out there would help them do something about it.”
The school-grading measure, HB1999, passed 54-40.
A similar bill in the Senate, written by Sen. William M. Stanley, Jr. (R-Franklin) was put by for the day. Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax) added amendments that would require that “growth factors” – which would take into account whether students made individual progress, even if it fell short of an expected benchmark — be included in the schools’ grading.
The Virginia Education Association, which represents teachers, objected to the simpified rating system, saying it could do a disservice to schools whose grades reflect the socioeconomic status of the families whose children attend them. Robley Jones, a VEA lobbyist, said parents would be better served to review the wealth of data on demographics and achievement already available.
The VEA also pushed for compromises in the accountability measure, including giving local school boards flexibility on extending the probationary window. Under current law the window is three years; the governor’s office wanted to extend it to five for all districts, Jones said.
“Our goal was to make sure our folks had due process,” Jones said.
Following a lengthy debate that crossed party lines, the House also gave preliminary approval to a bill sponsored by Del. Gregory D. Habeeb (R-Salem) that would create a new statewide entity to take over failing schools. The bill, modeled on a Louisiana program, would create the Opportunity Educational Institution to assume control over any school that failed to receive accreditation two years in a row.
The bill, HB2096, was opposed by some Republicans who questioned its constitutionality or its superseding of local control. It was supported by at least one Democrat who said it was time to try something new to address years of failure in some inner city schools.
“These are kids who look like me,” said Del. Onzlee Ware, an African American from Roanoke City who said children in impoverished households and neighborhoods had suffered too long.
Monday’s passage of the education measures comes after both the House and Senate finance committees on Sunday released draft budgets that include a 2 percent raise for teachers — as McDonnell had requested — and expanded those raises to apply to schools’ support staff.
“We were very pleased because it’s the first increase for teacher salaries since 2007,” Jones said. “It stops the bleeding.”
The House and Senate finance panels’ spending plans also would restore funds that allow Northern Virginia school districts to compete with others in the Washington region in paying competitive teacher salaries. The governor did not include the funds, known as the Cost of Competing Adjustment, in the second year of the state’s biennial budget for support staff. But the Senate added $12.6 million; the House added $6.1 million. The difference will have to be worked out in conference.
The House was gaveled to a close about 9:20 p.m. as lawmakers rushed to wrap up action on a lengthy calendar of bills. Tuesday marks the midpoint of this year’s legislative session and the final day for legislation to pass the House or the Senate and move on to other chamber or die.
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.
(Editor’s note: This story has been udpated to clarify that the state’s biennial budget did not include funds for support staff.)