Virginians who value public schools, local control of public schools, and public democratic institutions should be afraid. This may be the beginning of the end. Governor McDonnell proposed legislation SB1324 (which passed, though in the Senate by the skin of its teeth) that established a new bureaucratic entity, a statewide school division named the Opportunity Education Institution (OEI).
According to this post, the OEI would take over schools that were denied accreditation, which is done in accordance with "federal accountability data," also known as standardized test scores. The Institution will be run by a board of gubernatorial appointees, which includes the executive director. There is no guarantee that the board would include any people who know anything about education. The board would contract with non-profits, corporations, or education organizations to operate the schools. Funding for the new bureaucracy would be provided by federal, state, and local taxpayers. The "failing" schools' local governing bodies would be represented on the board in some way, but they would lose decision-making power and would not be able to vote or, from what I can tell, have much meaningful input, besides providing the same share of local funding and being responsible for maintenance of the school building. As for staffing, current faculty at the schools being taken over could apply for a position as a new employee with the OEI or apply for a transfer.
Meanwhile, for the reconvened session of the Virginia legislature that starts this Wednesday, April 3rd, Governor McDonnell is proposing a replacement bill and amendment that would broaden the scope of the OEI and budget $450,000 more than what was originally granted in SB 1324. SB1324S states that “the local school board shall transfer to the Board the supervision and operation of any school upon being denied accreditation. A local school board may request to transfer to the Board the supervision and operation of any school that has been accredited with warning for three consecutive years.” Budget Amendment 12 says that “... any school that has been accredited with warning for three consecutive years may be transferred to the Opportunity Educational Institution.”
According to the VEA's understanding, under the new plan, teachers at the OEI schools would not have to be licensed, so the students who need the most experienced teachers would be getting the least experienced. Nor would those OEI teachers be entitled to the benefits, pay, or job protections that other Virginia teachers are, even if they were employed by the school being taken over prior to takeover. Who will want to work at such schools, or schools that look likely to be taken over? Interestingly enough, the members of the new OEI bureaucracy would be eligible for VRS (Virginia Retirement System) and other benefits that the teachers would lose.
So, why should you be opposed to this?
First of all, the following Virginia education stakeholder organizations are all opposed to these measures: Virginia Association of Counties, Virginia Municipal League, Virginia School Boards Association, Virginia Association of School Superintendents, Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals, Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals, Virginia PTA, Virginia First Cities, and Virginia Education Association.
Second, although there are under ten schools currently slated to be part of the OEI, with the new more "rigorous" (read: more tricky) SOL tests, and no end in sight to unreasonable federal accountability mandates, many more schools, such as one in your community, could find themselves getting swallowed up by the OEI.
Third, there's no evidence that state takeover of struggling schools and districts helps. In fact, the evidence is at best mixed. The Governor and his policy allies are basing this approach on the system in New Orleans, which thus far has not proven successful. That Virginia would use as a model a city that hasn't had much educational success doesn't make sense. Michigan has also turned many public services over to the private sector, including the schools of Muskegon Heights. So far, that approach has been a disaster.
Finally, eliminating democratic institution and processes in a democratic society is not a cure for dysfunction or low test scores. Certainly, mass failure on the SOL tests signals a problem, but before the state blames and disenfranchises school communities, it really needs to figure out what that problem is and then target its resources accordingly. While many majority poor schools do just fine on standardized tests, I think we all know that the schools with low standardized test scores are often majority poor. Last I checked, being poor isn't a reason to disenfranchise communities and hand their schools over to outsiders.
So, I urge you to contact Governor McDonnell (804-786-2211) and your state legislators ASAP to state your opposition to the Opportunity Education Institution and to tell them to vote against SB1324S and amendment 12. This bill is likely unconstitutional and it's bad for Virginia--bad for public education and bad for democracy.