mcdonnell Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell (R).

In his State of the Commonwealth address Tuesday night, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) proposed a constitutional amendment that would make it easier for charter schools to open, an A-F grading system to rate schools, the use of Teach For America members, and more.

Here’s what he said about his education agenda, taken from prepared remarks, with a little comment:

All children, regardless of their zip code, must have world-class educational opportunities. It’s the only way Virginia will continue to recruit world-class companies like Hilton, Northrop Grumman, Bechtel and Intelsat that require highly-educated, highly-motivated employees.



The public education system really is for more than training employees for corporations, governor.

The brutal fact is, when it comes to educating our young people, America is slipping. While Virginia’s schools rate well nationally, according to the Program for International Student Assessment, the United States now ranks 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in mathematics. This is unacceptable. Those are not grades that we want to put on the national refrigerator.


The governor and/or his speech writers apparently do not know that the United States has never ranked high in international test scores, so it is wrong to say it is slipping in this regard.  Actually, American students in schools with low percentages of poor children score as high as anybody else in the world. They get grades that we would want to put on the national refrigerator. The international comparisons beg a lot of questions anyway, given that some countries are far more homogeneous than the United States and don’t have the same commitment — however flawed the result — to educate all students.

The time for action is now.

Great teachers in great schools make great students and citizens. A great teacher, like my sister Nancy in Amherst County, makes all the difference in the life of a young person. We need to recruit, incentivize, retain and reward excellent teachers and treat them like the professionals that they are. I’m proposing giving teachers their first state supported pay raise since 2007, and my budget amendments provide over $58 million for a 2 percent pay raise for all SOQ funded instructional personnel.


The Educator Fairness Act will streamline the bureaucratic grievance procedure to benefit teachers and principals. It will extend the probationary period for new teachers from three to five years, and require a satisfactory performance rating as demonstrated through the new performance evaluation system to keep a continuing contract. Good teachers will advance and flourish; poor ones will not.

Students are falling behind in mastering the STEM-H disciplines essential for the global economy.


I’m asking you to approve funding to support new teachers who teach science, technology, engineering, or mathematics in our middle and high schools.


I want our very best teachers in every subject to have incentives to excel. I’m proposing $15 million for school districts to reward their well-performing educators. This strategic compensation plan based on a model developed in the Salem school system will be implemented through local guidelines that best fit each school division’s unique characteristics.


Merit pay has been tried over and over and never works well. School reformers keep pushing it anyway.

We need some of our best teachers in our hard to staff and underperforming schools. Therefore, I am proposing legislation to start the Teach for America program in the Commonwealth. Since 1990, Teach for America has placed 28,000 exceptional graduates from top universities into some of our nation’s most challenging school systems. All over America this program works, but not here. There are almost 300 Teach for America participants from Virginia who should be teaching right here at home.


Teach For America corps members get five weeks of training in the summer and then are placed in some of America’s neediest classrooms with a commitment to stay only two years. Some don’t even last that long. Many are overwhelmed because they are not properly trained to deal with students who really need the best-trained teachers. Certainly some Teach For America recruits are wonderful teachers but this is not the solution to Virginia’s problem.


I’m also asking you to approve a budget amendment to place one reading specialist in each school that scores below 75 percent in the 3rd grade Standard of Learning test, and to fully fund the state share for staffing standards for blind and visually impaired students.


Yes and yes. Good ideas both.


I also propose a new method to obtain waivers from bureaucratic red tape, putting the algebra readiness and early reading intervention initiatives into the [Standards of Quality], and expanding character education and youth development programs.



Parents need to know how well their child’s school is working. We should grade schools like we grade students’ papers and tests. I’m proposing an A-F school ranking scale to empower parents and students to demand excellence.

This new grading transparency will allow us to hold schools more accountable.


The A-F school grading systems are usually based only on standardized test scores and don’t really empower parents and students to do much of anything, especially demand excellence.


Even in a state like ours with a very good public education system, some students are trapped in underperforming and unaccredited schools. This must end!


We now equip low performing schools with turnaround specialists and additional resources from the state and private sector. If they haven’t improved that’s unacceptable.

We must have a zero tolerance policy for failing schools.

Therefore, I’m asking you to approve a bold initiative to establish a statewide Opportunity Educational Institution to provide a high quality education alternative for children attending any chronically underperforming public elementary or secondary school. The Opportunity Educational Institution will be a new statewide school division to turnaround failing schools. If a school is consistently failing, the Opportunity Educational Institution will step in to manage it. If the school has failed for two years, the Institution can take it over and provide a brand new approach to a broken system.


This model is proven nationally. Louisiana and Tennessee have created Recovery and Achievement districts, and the results are positive. For the very small subset of schools that are failing Virginia’s students, we have no other option.

As the parent of five children who graduated from good Virginia public schools, I know we must raise the bar and end failure.


We must continue to bring more innovation and choices to our public education system. Excellent education demands having the courage to try new approaches.


Public charter schools have done well nationally to help bring options to our most underserved communities. They can increase flexibility and innovation and offer a wider range of educational experiences. We’ve approved new charter laws, but we haven’t done nearly enough.

Massachusetts has 72 charter schools. Pennsylvania 164. Florida 520. Virginia has just four!


We still have one of the weakest public charter schools laws in the country. The best public charter school operators in the nation will not come here because we make it nearly impossible for them. We need new charter school laws that demand excellence, set clear standards, and welcome the best charter schools into our communities. This session I’m asking you to join me to pass a Constitutional amendment to allow the state Board of Education to authorize charter applicants. And I am asking your support of legislation to eliminate the requirement that local school boards who originate a charter school application must first apply for authorization from the state Board of Education. These ideas will make it much easier for proven charter schools to open up.


Public charter schools have a mixed record of success. They are no panacea. Virginia has done very well in public education without strong charter school laws.


Better schools mean better jobs and a stronger Virginia.