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Something unusual happened in the Virginia General Assembly the other week: A bipartisan vote on a controversial issue.
Governor Bob McDonnell’s Opportunity Educational Institution legislation crafts a system for taking over consistently failing public schools. McDonnell’s legislation essentially creates a new school division, transferring unaccredited schools from their local school system to a new Institution with the power to operate them.

Although other such vehicles have been created in the past (the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind comes immediately to mind), this new one is certainly controversial. School systems vividly oppose it as an encroachment on their power and
authority. School superintendents, local school board members and the powerful teacher’s union put on a full-court press to block it.

So let’s leave aside for a moment the merits or demerits of the legislation and ask the question: Why would seven Democrats cross party lines – anger a key political constituency — on a bill they could have voted against and still seen pass?
One answer may lie in the records of the schools likely to be affected. News reports indicate that among them are: Norfolk’s Lafayette-Winona Middle School, which has failed to be fully accredited for eight of the last 10 years and William H. Ruffner Middle School (failed full accreditation for 7 of 10 years); Alexandria City’s Jefferson-Houston Elementary (9 of 10 years); and Petersburg City’s A.P. Hill Elementary (9 of 10) and Peabody Middle School (which never made full accreditation once in the last eight years).

Nearly an entire academic generation of students has been failed by these schools and the people that ran them. And one can’t help but suspect there are other schools hovering in that academic twilight between passing and failing.

Yet, hobbled by language in the Virginia Constitution (and years of judicial language upholding it) putting near-absolute control of even consistently failing schools in the hands of local jurisdictions, the state Department of Education isn’t empowered to make that kind of takeover. An entirely new system needed to be created.

Predictably, some opponents argued that all it really takes is more money. Delegate Ken Plum suggested that the $600,000 budget item for the Opportunity Educational Institution would make a difference – although its not certain how, since only 28 miles away from his district is the Jefferson-Houston school, in the Alexandria City school division where more than $17,000 per pupil is spent.

Alexandria school officials, meanwhile, argued against ever allowing a state take-over, insisting that “Local school board oversight is critical to ensuring that children succeed through effective education,” and declaring “Community is what changes schools.” This raises the obvious questions: If local oversight is critical, where has it been in Alexandria for the children of Jefferson-Houston? If “community” is what changes schools, what does that say about the Alexandria community?

The arguments seemed effective with some. Eight rural and suburban GOP Delegates who might otherwise be expected to side with their Governor, cast their votes “No.” But seven Democrats, representing largely urban districts, voted “Yes.”

To be sure, legislators who voted for the Opportunity Educational Institution expecting a silver bullet aren’t likely to find it. There are very few turn-around organizations with expertise at reversing the course in schools and, of those, the record is 50-50 at best. Whoever ends up running the new Institute will find themselves “owning” these schools and facing a cultural inertia that will be a huge challenge to reverse.

There are no guarantees … but we already know what isn’t working. The approach of many seems to be typified by Delegate Rosalyn Dance (D-63), who noted that voting against the bill would have been like saying “we’re doing fine and don’t needany additional help.”

The children in those schools are not doing fine, and those seven urban Democrats were no doubt feeling the frustration of their districts – the kind of frustration parents feel when they look at years of failure with no evident change.

The kind they feel when a Petersburg teacher insists that her school division is “in pretty good shape” even as more than half the children in the middle school cannot do math on grade level.

The kind they feel when one out of four male children do not graduate high school on time, and are left with bleak opportunities in a 21st century world.

The kind of frustration that makes you want to say “Enough!”
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