by Grady Brown
There’s an age-old saying: “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” That sentiment was translated into policy in February of last year when the Virginia legislature created the Opportunity Educational Institution and Board (OEI and OEI Board). The bill gave the OEI authority to regulate low-performing schools that had either been denied accreditation from the state or had received a “warning” status for three consecutive years starting on July 1. The bill would have impacted only six schools, but set a precedent for more state power in education. It was ruled unconstitutional earlier this summer.
From its introduction to the General Assembly, the bill proved contentious. Although it garnered support from a few Democrats early on, an amendment to the bill to make “warning” status schools eligible for state takeover diminished bipartisan support. Democrats countered with their own bill calling for joint state-local turnaround agreements with local control of struggling schools. While the new bill passed in the Senate, it fell short in the Republican-controlled House. The state takeover bill went on to pass on party lines in the Senate (which required a deciding vote from the Lieutenant Governor) and the House.
Local school districts and teachers unions stood together in opposition. More than 100 school boards and municipal governing boards, including the Charlottesville School Board, gave their support for a lawsuit Norfolk Public Schools brought challenging the law’s constitutionality. Virginia is unique in that its constitution explicitly gives local school districts authority and control of their schools. Opponents of the bill also worried that state takeover would inevitably lead to privatizing education.
Former Governor Bob McDonnell, the bill’s leading proponent, said the state constitution requires the legislative branch to provide high quality educational programs. McDonnell said struggling schools were allowed to fail for far too long.
The heated battle between lawmakers and school administrators culminated in a ruling this past June, when a Circuit Court judge declared the bill unconstitutional because it stripped local school boards of their authority to regulate and address low-performing schools.
Virginia is certainly not the first state to consider state school takeover. States have used several approaches to state takeover since New Jersey first initiated a state takeover law in 1987. However, mixed outcomes made predicting success in Virginia difficult. In New Orleans, for example, the overall percentage of students who attend low-performing schools has dropped by nearly 50 percent. Yet those students still attending a failing school continue to earn low academic marks, with schools receiving, on average, a “D” letter grade. In Mississippi, one school district showed a 65 percent increase in eighth grade math proficiency while under state control. However, the district’s fifth graders demonstrated no gains.
In Virginia, the court’s decision will, pending an appeal, give power back to local school districts to regulate and address low-performing schools. Although Virginia has typically boasted solid academic performance – the state routinely scores higher than the national average on academic assessments – it is no stranger to stagnant or declining test scores. Students of low socio-economic status families have greater problems with declining test scores, an issue the bill sought to address.
Jefferson-Houston Elementary School, one of six schools that would have fallen under OEI control had the bill been upheld, has seen a staggering decline in academic achievement among its economically disadvantaged students. During the 2010-11 school year, 62 percent of its economically disadvantaged students passed the English and Reading state assessment. Last year, only 32 percent of economically disadvantaged students passed state assessments, compared to 59 percent statewide. And other schools throughout the state have shown similar trends.
The recent court decision has, seemingly, laid the framework for the state’s approach to low-performing schools: the continuation of local control. But if local districts currently cannot turn around low-performing schools, some wonder whether this strategy should continue.
If test scores continue to drop and remain stagnant, legislators’ and parents’ frustration will continue to grow. The state remains very much part of a national conversation on the issue of low-performing schools and what constitutes best practices to promote stronger academic achievement.
Grady Brown is a staff writer for The Third Rail. All views expressed within are his own.