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Governor’s Race Produces New Educational Accountability

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Ken Cuccinelli can’t catch a break.

From the left, opponent Terry McAuliffe charges that his tax plan will cut funding to education – a false claim ignoring the truth noted by Democratic blogger Ben “Not Larry Sabato” Tribbet: that Cuccinelli would fund any tax cuts by cutting tax loopholes, not cutting education budgets.

From the right, Attorney General Cuccinelli’s decision not to defend the new Opportunity Education Institution on constitutional grounds has been criticized by national education reformers who charge a “lack of leadership” – as if constitutional restrictions could merely be waived when they are inconvenient.

Lost in the kerfuffle is the fact that Cuccinelli’s education plan makes some important first steps towards reforming K-12 education, going beyond just piling on more programs and funding.

One of the frustrations of educational governance in Virginia is this: There’s no continuum of rewards for schools that succeed, or consequences for those that fail to educate children. If a school improves or succeeds in meeting its goal – well, it will get a pat on the back, but the rules remain the same and there’s no extra funding to expand on what is working well.

At the other extreme, the penalty for a school failing to meet accreditation for three or four years? They’re forced to sign a “Memorandum of Understanding” with the state. If they are still unaccredited three years later … well, good golly, we make them sign another.

This form of educational eunuchism derives partly from constitutional language placing the unquestionable supervision of local public schools in the hands of local authorities – regardless of whether they do a good job at it or not. It also derives from a 44-year-old system of measuring “quality” by inputs, rather than educational outcomes: So long as there are “x” number of teachers for “y” number of students, schools will meet a Standard of Quality, even if their students aren’t learning on grade level. Worse, they’re locked into that staffing ratio – even if a different one might work better with their particular group of students.

It’s a system that worked well when it was first developed, but in an age when the diversity of students in the classroom has dramatically increased, it’s not as effective for students coming into the classroom with educational deficits … or those ready for greater challenges than a “teach to the common denominator” system will allow.

So, in addition to an emphasis on reforming the Standards of Learning and ratcheting up Virginia’s STEM (Science, Math, Engineering and Technology) curriculum – goals shared with McAuliffe — Cuccinelli’s plan takes several new steps that would give more power to local schools, school divisions, and the parents they serve.

First, he’d build on efforts to increase school transparency by creating a clearer reporting system on each child’s performance, as well as that of the school. Making certain parents and the taxpaying public understand the outcomes in education is step one in engaging both parents and the non-parent public at large.

Second, he’d financially reward schools that demonstrated improvement while simultaneously giving traditional public schools the kind of flexibility from overregulation – in exchange for clearly defined accountability in achieving outcomes — that are given to public charter schools in other states. Incentivizing local schools to do more of what works is a good thing. And giving schools and school divisions the flexibility to meet the needs of students in their classrooms would be incredibly effective 21st century education policy … and something that school division leaders have been asking for for years.

Finally, he’d expand and strengthen the opportunities parents would have to demand reforms at their local public schools or, barring real reform there, helping their child find an alternative placement that serves the child better. Putting ultimate public school accountability into the hands of the customer (parents) ought to be viewed as a positive, so long as the accountability focuses on results that prepare children for college and career.

It is clear from the debates of the last General Assembly session that frustration is increasing over schools which fail to be fully accredited for most of the last ten years, a frustration that boiled over with creation of the Opportunity Educational Institution that would take over those schools. It is just as clear that money alone is not the answer – not when some of these schools are located in school divisions spending more than $17,000 per student.

There is certainly more that could be done to reform Virginia’s education accountability system and the funding that goes with it, but Cuccinelli’s proposals are modest first steps worthy of support.

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