Sunday, January 26, 2014

My Yeas, Nays, and Maybes: 2014 Virginia Education Legislation

The Virginia legislature is, once again, in session. Here is my take on various education-related bills.

1. SOL (Standards of Learning) Testing Reform Bill: Unfortunately, I can't locate the legislation for this bill, but I couldn't be happier that this legislation is in the works and that it has such wide and bi-partisan support. It's not the end of what should be done to fix Virginia's accountability structure but it's a start. Among other changes, the bill would reduce the number of SOL tests from 34 to 26 and call for more authentic and higher quality assessments. Two caveats:

a. The Virginia Board of Education and some folks at Virginia's Department of Education are claiming that Virginia's newer SOL tests, for example the math ones, are already of higher quality:
Virginia’s Board of Education has revised its tests so they are more reflective of what students need to know to attend college or begin an entry-level job, said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Education Department. 
Many of the state’s new online tests include “technology-enhanced items” that require students to think critically and solve problems. The more rigorous tests caused scores to drop around the state. 
Greason applauded the work the state has been doing and said the legislature would build on those reforms and codify them.
From what I can tell, the new tests are the same old stuff with some added bells and whistles. The reading test is still a disaster, "technology-enhanced" test items does not a critical thinker make, and these tests are not more rigorous, but are rather more tricky. Merely having twenty-six SOL tests akin to the newer ones is not progress in my book.

b. While there are efforts being made to ensure that non-tested subjects continue to be taught, some legislators are pushing to eliminate some tests in order to "focus on math and reading:"
“In the early years of elementary school we want to spend the majority of our time on reading and math,” said Del. Thomas “Tag” Greason, R-Loudoun County. “If a student cannot read, or do math, then the science SOL is really going to be a waste of everybody’s time.”
Oh, brother. Not this again. If a student can't read or do math, they're certainly not going to get any better at either by being denied instruction in science, social studies, or the arts. If students haven't learned anything about or any vocabulary words from those subjects, once they try to read about them, they won't be able to understand what they're reading with any success.

I hope legislators do not deny elementary students rich and varied curricula in the name of testing reform. Including the two caveats, I would support this bill.

2. HB 113: This bill would abolish the Opportunity Education Institution. The Opportunity Education Institution will undermine democracy and local control and will add another costly layer of bureaucracy. In case you missed it, I wrote about the OEI here. Among other Virginia public education stakeholder groups, one hundred or 75% of Virginia School Boards also oppose the OEI. I couldn't locate it but there is also a budget amendment to de-fund the OEI.

I completely support this bill and the accompanying budget amendment. Death to the OEI!

3. HB 318: This bill would repeal the School Grading Bill passed last year. I do not think school grading is a sound practice. See what I wrote here about school grading (hint: Virginia's school grading bill is also linked to the OEI, so double yuck.) There is also a bill to delay implementation of the School Grading Bill , HB 618/SB 324, and a bill to alter it, ostensibly to make it better, HB 553.

I heartily support the repeal bill. However, if delay and/or modification is the best that can be done, I'd support those, too.

4. SB 236: This bill would give public school students the right to pray, participate in religious activities, and wear faith-themed clothing on school property. I normally say to err on the side of free-er speech. I, for one, support the moment of silence that begins the school day in Virginia public schools, because it's silent and you can think anything you want to during that time. However, the problem with this particular bill as stated in this article is precisely this:
Claire Guthrie GastaƱaga, the head of the Virginia chapter of the ACLU, said the proposed law is unnecessary and could lead to government-sponsored religious speech at public schools that would draw litigation. 
“Students’ rights to express and practice their faith in the public schools are already well-protected in existing federal and state laws,” she said in a statement. 
GastaƱaga said the ACLU of Virginia and other groups actively remind schools about their constitutional obligation to treat religious speech equally. But she said the bill could be interpreted in a way that would result in religious coercion of students. 
“The right to engage in voluntary prayer or religious discussion free from discrimination does not include the right to have a captive audience listen, or to compel other students to participate,” she said.
I would oppose this bill. There's enough religion and praying in Virginia public schools.

5. House Bill 207: The bill to "encourage students to explore scientific questions" is actually a bill that encourages students to disregard science. It gives science teachers "the freedom" to teach that climate change and evolution are scientifically controversial theories. There are many theories in science that are controversial within scientific communities, however evolution and climate change aren't two of them. At all.

I totally oppose this bill.

6. HB 63: This bill would allow home-schooled students to be eligible to play public school sports. It was defeated last year. I actually was indifferent to leaning to supporting this bill, but Chris Pace, one of my local education advocacy pals and a high school social studies teacher, has convinced me to oppose it. Here is some of his reasoning:
First, extra-curricular programs exist for students who attend the school. Their entire purpose is to get kids thinking about their school in a positive way, while connecting students to teachers in an out-of-class setting. This fosters more personal relationships and that has been proven to lead to more academic success. 
Second, there is no way to hold home schooled athletes academically accountable. Home schooled students do not take SOLs or have GPAs. Their grades are assigned by the child’s parents. We assume that home schooling is done by people who have their child’s best academic interests at heart, but that is sometimes far from the truth. as a nine year GED instructor, I can tell you that I had many students who were “home schooled” who hadn’t done much in their time away from public school. Sometimes “home schooled” means not schooled. Imagine the shooting guard who flunks the 1st semester but shows up for baseball tryouts as a “home schooled athlete”. You would also have people pull their kids out of school before the school year begins to avoid academic standards. 
Third, there are only so many jerseys to give out. Cutting a student who attends the school to give a jersey to someone who doesn’t is plain wrong. The “carrot and stick” game linking behavior and academics to athletic participation works well and it can only be realistically used for students at the school. For example, a suspended student cannot play on the day of the suspension. What if that academically struggling student athlete were cut in favor of a home schooled athlete? Who will be there to help that child? Many coaches link behavior and academic performance to playing time – this motivates students and sets a good example of priorities. I know of several examples where a coach helped make the difference between passing and failing for a student athlete.   
Finally, serious athletes are almost always recruited OUTSIDE of their high school seasons in AAU or “Travel Teams." With the exception of football, all scholarship recipients are recruited during their travel seasons. This is where college coaches make evaluations and offers. Any home schooled athlete can participate in these programs – so they aren’t missing out on anything that they aren’t already skipping voluntarily by not attending public school.

I'd add that I believe that each school receives a per-pupil allotment which goes towards athletics, too. If this is true then when the student doesn't attend their home school then the school doesn't receive funding for them, for athletics or otherwise. If we wanted to re-invent our local public schools as community centers, then I might support this bill but with the way high school sports and funding mechanisms are currently structured here, I don't think it would be a good idea. I oppose this bill.

7. HB 720: This bill would require that each public school in Virginia set aside a non-restroom room, shielded from public view to pump breast milk. As a teacher and mom who was able to lock her small, windowless classroom once per school day to pump breast milk (I could produce 24 ounces in like 15 minutes but that's another story) for her beautiful twin baby boys, I must fully support this bill. It meant I could work as a teacher while another caretaker fed my little ones my breast milk.

8. HB 514/ SB 385: This is an awful bill and h/t to the VEA blog or I never would have gotten wind of it. The VEA is calling it the "Dead Peasant" bill:
The concept behind these bills is that an entity created by a Virginia locality or by the Virginia Retirement System would borrow money and use the money to purchase life insurance on employees.  The example provided to me by a lobbyist supporting the concept is that the employer would take out a $250,000 policy.  When the employee died, the entity would get $200,000 and the employee’s heirs would get $50,000.  The collective value of the policies held by the entities would offset the unfunded pension liability on the books of the state and localities.
Pardon my French, but that is some f%^ed up sh&!.  WalMart has done this in the past, albeit secretly and purely for profit, but any way you slice it, it is unbelievably disturbing. We really don't want to fund our pension obligations this way, by gambling on the prospects of Virginia state's employees dying. It can not have come to this.

I oppose this bill out of disgust alone.

9. HB 1156: This bill would require lower class sizes in early elementary school, requiring kindergarten, first, second, and third grades classes to have an average of 21 students with a maximum of 26. I am in full agreement that smaller class sizes are beneficial and preferred especially at younger ages, however, this sounds like an unfunded mandate and I'm not convinced that legislating this is the way to go. Such mandates can undermine control and flexibility at the local level and can cause greater problems than they solve.

Before I oppose or support this bill, I need to learn more about it, but for now I am skeptical. If Virginia actually funded public education as it should be, class sizes would get smaller quickly.

10. Medicaid Expansion: I can not locate a bill for this, but Medicaid Expansion would mean a billion or so dollars for Virginia's general fund which means more money for public education, more jobs for Virginians, and health insurance for the thousands of Virginians currently without.

I support Medicaid Expansion for Virginia.

If there any bills you think I missed, please mention them in the comments. Otherwise, please contact your legislators! To track bills, find out who your legislator is, and get their contact information, please go to the Virginia General Assembly website.

1 comment:

  1. A very similar bill, HB 1006, permitting similar carry-over tax credits of up to solely $1000 for constant expenses, was submitted by completely different delegate in 2012


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