How Long Must Parents Wait?

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In a recent news release, Governor Terry McAuliffe heralded the fact that 86 percent of Virginia schools were fully accredited – “a record high” for his administration and a five point improvement over last year.

He neglected to mention that 88 schools failed accreditation – a 203 percent increase in unaccredited schools over last year, and more unaccredited schools this year than in the previous ten years combined.

In a new poll by Christopher Newport’s Wason Center, the most important issue most voters want the next Governor to work on is “improving K-12 education.” Improving educational quality for the children in those 88 schools ought to be a top consideration.

Thirteen schools have failed accreditation for three years or more. Despite throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra “Executive Leadership” funding at Petersburg, the students of Vernon Johns Middle School are attending an unaccredited school for the twelfth consecutive year. Despite a new $44.2 million school building, the child who entered first grade six years ago at Alexandria’s Jefferson-Houston Elementary has now spent her entire school career in an unaccredited school.

If anything, this year’s accreditation list points up two things –

First, the divide in education is growing. Good schools on the right track with the right leadership are getting better. Poorly performing schools without the right kind of leadership continue to decline. And continued geographic concentrations of poverty and wealth have all too often meant different tracks for the schools those children attend.

The second is that the state seems powerless to do anything to help the children in these schools. And while that may seem like an excuse, the reality is that the Virginia Constitution requires that “the supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board.” Worse, past court decisions have given local school boards nearly unfettered control over buildings, budgets, curriculum, and personnel – even if they run it into the ground.

To its credit, the State Board of Education’s proposed new regulations ratchet up the consequences for non-performing schools and school divisions, including the threat of withholding a limited amount of state funding. But the process is long, case by case and thin gruel compared with the dramatic and decisive action so badly needed. Besides which, “state takeovers” have a spotty track record — partly because states rarely take the time to rebuild school culture.

One alternative is to authorize new quality public schools run by successful educators, but outside the traditional system. And there are such schools defying the “demography is destiny” mantra. The problem: They aren’t in Virginia.

Today, 7,000 public charter schools serve 3 million students. While not a panacea, their track record with low-income children is striking: According to Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), after four years in a charter school, urban students learn 50 percent more per year than demographically similar students in traditional public schools.

In New York, 95 percent of Success Academy’s students are children of color whose families have an average income of $32,000 per year. In math, 95 percent of them passed the state exams and 84 percent passed reading, outperforming every school district in the state, including those with median family incomes of $290,000.

KIPP Academies educates 88,000 students in 209 schools – 95 percent of them black or Latino and 88 percent of them on Free and Reduced Meals subsidies. Eighty-one percent enter college and they graduate college at a pace four times the rate of their peers.

But these and other successful charter schools won’t come to Virginia, citing the Commonwealth’s “restrictive charter school law that limits autonomy and makes it impossible for high quality charter schools to fulfill their mission.” And without alternatives, parents will never be able to send their children to a public charter school opening the doors of opportunity for Virginia’s neediest students.

A measure earlier this year might have cracked that door a bit, had it been signed into law. It would have allowed the State Board of Education to authorize a new school board – an overlay of sorts – that could only target areas with one or more schools that repeatedly failed accreditation.

And while it would not have touched existing schools or local funding, it would have empowered the State Board to meet its own constitutional responsibility for the “supervision of the public school system,” taken steps toward the constitutional aspiration of “an educational program of high quality,” and helped several thousand low-income children who now have no quality choices.

Sadly, the bill was vetoed by Governor McAuliffe, shooting down educational justice for the children of places like Petersburg, Norfolk and Newport News.

As the voters who place a premium on K-12 education think about the issues, they should consider this: The parents of children in high-performing schools are rarely concerned about choices: They’ve already made theirs.

But how long must the parents of children in persistently low-performing schools wait to have better opportunities for their child? Four years? Six? A dozen years? How long?

(A version of this commentary first appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on October 1, 2017.)

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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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