Empowering Educators, Not Regulators

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In 1971 fax machines were “high tech.” China was an isolated country, not a world economic player. And the TC Williams Titans were about to win the state football championship, an act made notable because it was the school’s first year of desegregation.

Much has changed since then.

Yet, Virginia still defines educational quality through a series of mandated inputs and staffing ratios that are increasingly outdated in a world defining excellence not by what you put into the mixture, but by what you take out of it. Consider: Steve Jobs did not define the quality of the iPad by how many people it took to make it or the number of parts used in its manufacture; he defined quality by how well it worked.

Virginia’s Standards of Quality (SOQs) were first drafted and approved with the adoption of the Virginia Constitution in 1971 – a time long before the No Child Left Behind, the Standards of Learning exams, or even the now long-abandoned Literacy Passport Exam. Measuring quality by inputs made sense 42 years ago; Virginia was finally abandoning its unequal segregated system of schools and the SOQ’s started us on the road to a level playing field.

But do they still make sense in the 21st century? At a time when Americans place a premium on nimbleness and flexibility, education systems remain tightly bound up in regulations and staffing formulas dictating how schools are to be run, regardless of what the genuine need of a local school or school division might be.

And while the State Board of Education can offer waivers to some regulations, the meat of most mandates is contained in the SOQs – which are approved by the General Assembly and cannot be waived without its sanction. Just one example: As Virginia has raised math standards, test scores have understandably declined. Yet school divisions cannot add math specialists to focus on that subject area if doing so requires reducing staffing ratios in any other area – even an area where students might be scoring well above-average.

During recent public hearings on the Standards of Quality every local school superintendent asked for relief from these kinds of strictures. To be honest, most states operate with the same kind of system … but there are signs that the old method of mandates is starting to break down.

Kentucky is one state addressing the issue by developing procedures allowing school districts there to operate more independently, gaining flexibility in curriculum, instruction,funding and school scheduling. Indiana, Colorado and Tennessee have similar laws on the books.

Louisiana’s Red Tape Reduction Act operates much the same way. There, the state permits a waiver of any combination of laws, rules, and regulations – including, but not limited to, instructional time, curriculum, funding, personnel, and student-teacher ratios.

A school district requesting a waiver for one or more of its schools must identify the specific laws, rules and regulations from which exemption is sought, as well as the policies and procedures to be instituted as a substitute. It must also describe how its approval will increase the quality of instruction, improve academic achievement or improve teaching effectiveness, and must include specific and measurable goals.

As in Kentucky, for a Louisiana school to gain a waiver, those who teach there must vote to support the waiver request, ensuring that waivers are not “top-down” schemes imposed on teachers, but rather “bottom-up” solutions created by empowered educators.

To be sure, school systems still have to meet quality standards for all children – but how they achieve those goals is left up to local school communities.

Governor Bob McDonnell has put on the table the same kind of notion for Virginia. While details aren’t yet available, he would expand opportunities to request waivers and free up school divisions to engage in the kind of innovation that makes a real difference, but that can only come with increased flexibility to meet the needs of individual schools.

It’s human nature to believe we personally have all the answers. But it’s human folly to believe that one set of rules at a state level can address all the issues in 2,000 public schools teaching 1.1 million children.

A robust red tape reduction bill, offering an extensive range of regulatory relief encouraging educator involvement, would help push decision-making back down to the local level, where we need to trust that local school communities know what is best for their children.

It would provide the Governor an opportunity to make common cause with teachers and superintendents who have asked for this relief.

And, most importantly, it would focus attention on academic outcomes rather than on resource inputs, a focus that reflects the culture of the 21st century and the demands of a modern society.

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About Christian Braunlich

Chris Braunlich is vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute and past president of the Virginia State Board of Education. The opinions expressed are his and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute or its Board of Directors. He can be reached at chris@thomasjeffersoninst.org.

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3 Responses to Empowering Educators, Not Regulators

  1. Barry Marshall says:

    All this stuff sounds nice but it still won’t make a lasting difference because the government always has its self interest at heart. The only way to fix education is to allow school vouchers so people can send their kids to non government schools or home school. Vouchers would save money for the state and create competition for students of all abilities. The fact you are on the State Board of Education blinds you to real solutions.

  2. Chris Braunlich says:

    Thanks for your comment.

    As I’m sure you know, Virginia’s Constitution contains both a Blaine Amendment and “Compelled Support” language which means that a state voucher could not be used in a faith-based private school. This would be extraordinarily limiting. In addition, many private school leaders do not support vouchers because of the fear that it would inevitably lead to state influence and control over private school operations.

    That is why we at the Jefferson Institute led the battle to establish “Education Improvement Tax Credit Scholarships.” Under this program, donations to private foundations would receive a 65 percent tax credit and, in return, those foundations would provide private scholarships for students to attend the school of their choice. This system eliminates any state involvement and clears any constitutional bar.

    Regardless of whatever choice mechanism is put into place, the reality remains that the vast majority of parents are going to continue sending their children to public schools. Under those circumstances, we need to not only maximize choice but improve educational quality for all children.

    I appreciate your comments, but I assure you I can see quite clearly.


    Christian N. Braunlich
    Vice President
    Thomas Jefferson Institute

  3. Barbara Skinner says:

    Aren’t the newly-produced recommendations for changes to the SOQ mostly about mandating new staffing requirements? Larding up with administrators and bringing classes sizes super low have NOT increased quality. I would never have moved to Blacksburg, VA, in 2004 had I known how mediocre this school system is. One of our biggest problems here is our school board. All seven on our board equate spending with quality. Unfortunately, most Montgomery County voters don’t have a clue as to who their school board representatives are. Most school board races are unchallenged. How depressing. Unfortunately other states are leading the way in school choice and reform.

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