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On Education, McDonnell and Duncan Stand Together

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Should Virginia keep tolerating schools that fail to educate their students year after year after year?

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell says “No.” So does Barack Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
On June 4, McDonnell threw down the gauntlet for change, calling for an expansion of successful charter schools, greater choices for parents, increased online learning and a strengthening of turnaround programs for schools that aren’t working.

He’s not alone.

In a press conference four days later, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared that states with inadequate or no charter school laws “will jeopardize their applications under the Race to the Top Fund” – his $5 billion stimulus program. That would likely include Virginia, whose law is so weak the Commonwealth’s application for charter school grants has regularly been rejected.

Duncan made the case for choice when he noted “When parents recognize which schools are failing to educate their children, they will demand more effective options for their kids. They won’t care whether they are charters, non-charters, or some other model….”  No, they won’t.  And they’ll choose the educational choice in which their child thrives.

Both Duncan and McDonnell have their work cut out for them. In McDonnell’s case, he’s fighting an uphill battle against a culture that has tolerated failure and resisted change – even change that leads to success.

For example, while less than 20 percent of low-income students typically go to college, more than 85 percent of low-income students attending the nationally-renowned Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) Charter Schools go on to four-year colleges – same demographics, but very different results. Bringing in KIPP is an obvious solution for low-performing schools, but that requires providing flexibility and freedom so the school leadership can operate outside a top-down bureaucracy.

McDonnell would duplicate Newport News’ successful contract school, the Achievable Dream high school, as an “off the shelf” charter school that could be used throughout the state.  Achievable Dream’s students academically outpace their peers in the traditional public schools and 90 percent of its low-income kids go to college.

But its success equally depends on flexibility and the freedom to innovate – and that’s a “no-no” in the Old Dominion. Ask KIPP’s founder why Virginia isn’t one of the 19 states in which they operate and he notes Virginia “does not have a great charter school law in terms of providing freedom for the schools.”

That’s largely because teachers’ union, school boards association, and school administrators all conspire to prevent allowing charters the flexibility to operate successfully. In fact, the teacher’s union hits the jackpot in scare tactics by claiming such flexibility would lead to segregated all-white schools, ignoring the fact that Barack Obama supports charter school flexibility.

One has to wonder:  Are they saying America’s first black president is on the side of segregation?

McDonnell and Duncan stand together on other K-12 education reforms, as well.  McDonnell has called for an incentive program for teachers and principals who increase student achievement, and is expected to soon release details of a plan for performance pay. Duncan told the Associated Press that “to somehow suggest we should not link student achievement to teacher effectiveness is like suggesting we judge sports teams without looking at the box score.”

And what about the newly-anointed Democratic Party candidate, Creigh Deeds? His website devotes all of four paragraphs to K-12 education issues, with not a word about how to help low-income, at-risk kids. Expected to be endorsed by that same teachers’ union, Deeds is supporting across-the-board salary increases – with the same amount going to an effective teacher as an ineffective one. And he’s voted against giving charter schools the kind of flexibility that makes them effective in teaching at-risk kids.

All of which would appear to pit the McDonnell-Duncan team against the Deeds-union team.

Which should make for an interesting campaign in the months ahead.

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