How Long Must Parents Wait?

Vernon Johns Middle School in Petersburg — new building, same sad results

by Chris Braunlich

In a recent news release, Governor Terry McAuliffe heralded the fact that 86 percent of Virginia schools were fully accredited – “a record high” for his administration and a five point improvement over last year.

He neglected to mention that 88 schools failed accreditation – a 203 percent increase in unaccredited schools over last year, and more unaccredited schools this year than in the previous ten years combined.

In a new poll by Christopher Newport’s Wason Center, the most important issue most voters want the next Governor to work on is “improving K-12 education.” Improving educational quality for the children in those 88 schools ought to be a top consideration.

Alexandria’s Jefferson-Houston Elementary School. New building, same old education.

Thirteen schools have failed accreditation for three years or more. Despite throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra “Executive Leadership” funding at Petersburg, the students of Vernon Johns Middle School are attending an unaccredited school for the twelfth consecutive year. Despite a new $44.2 million school building, the child who entered first grade six years ago at Alexandria’s Jefferson-Houston Elementary has now spent her entire school career in an unaccredited school.

If anything, this year’s accreditation list points up two things –

First, the divide in education is growing. Good schools on the right track with the right leadership are getting better. Poorly performing schools without the right kind of leadership continue to decline. And continued geographic concentrations of poverty and wealth have all too often meant different tracks for the schools those children attend.

The second is that the state seems powerless to do anything to help the children in these schools. And while that may seem like an excuse, the reality is that the Virginia Constitution requires that “the supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board.” Worse, past court decisions have given local school boards nearly unfettered control over buildings, budgets, curriculum, and personnel – even if they run it into the ground.

To its credit, the State Board of Education’s proposed new regulations ratchet up the consequences for non-performing schools and school divisions, including the threat of withholding a limited amount of state funding. But the process is long, case by case and thin gruel compared with the dramatic and decisive action so badly needed. Besides which, “state takeovers” have a spotty track record — partly because states rarely take the time to rebuild school culture.

One alternative is to authorize new quality public schools run by successful educators, but outside the traditional system. And there are such schools defying the “demography is destiny” mantra. The problem: They aren’t in Virginia.

Today, 7,000 public charter schools serve 3 million students. While not a panacea, their track record with low-income children is striking: According to Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), after four years in a charter school, urban students learn 50 percent more per year than demographically similar students in traditional public schools.

In New York, 95 percent of Success Academy’s students are children of color whose families have an average income of $32,000 per year. In math, 95 percent of them passed the state exams and 84 percent passed reading, outperforming every school district in the state, including those with median family incomes of $290,000.

KIPP Academies educates 88,000 students in 209 schools – 95 percent of them black or Latino and 88 percent of them on Free and Reduced Meals subsidies. Eighty-one percent enter college and they graduate college at a pace four times the rate of their peers.

But these and other successful charter schools won’t come to Virginia, citing the Commonwealth’s “restrictive charter school law that limits autonomy and makes it impossible for high quality charter schools to fulfill their mission.” And without alternatives, parents will never be able to send their children to a public charter school opening the doors of opportunity for Virginia’s neediest students.

A measure earlier this year might have cracked that door a bit, had it been signed into law. It would have allowed the State Board of Education to authorize a new school board – an overlay of sorts – that could only target areas with one or more schools that repeatedly failed accreditation.

And while it would not have touched existing schools or local funding, it would have empowered the State Board to meet its own constitutional responsibility for the “supervision of the public school system,” taken steps toward the constitutional aspiration of “an educational program of high quality,” and helped several thousand low-income children who now have no quality choices.

Sadly, the bill was vetoed by Governor McAuliffe, shooting down educational justice for the children of places like Petersburg, Norfolk and Newport News.

As the voters who place a premium on K-12 education think about the issues, they should consider this: The parents of children in high-performing schools are rarely concerned about choices: They’ve already made theirs.

But how long must the parents of children in persistently low-performing schools wait to have better opportunities for their child? Four years? Six? A dozen years? How long?

Chris Braunlich is vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute and past president of the Virginia State Board of Education. This column was published originally in The Jefferson Journal, and a version of it in the Virginian-Pilot.

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10 responses to “How Long Must Parents Wait?

  1. This is a very fine article.

    Unfortunately, as if in direct response to it, so as to avoid its own responsibility and accountability for these failures, and to further hide the truth of its schools wasting students lives and opportunities, Virginia’s recent “cuts to annual exams testing fell most heavily on its well regarded U.S. History tests this year, despite years of poor performance indicating young citizens need the tests”.


    • Reed, speaking of wasting student lives and opportunities, I was thinking of you when I read this recently [granted the subject here is college not secondary]. Apparently institutional competition for students is not the solution for all educational ills, though charter schools would clearly help in the case of decertification —-

      “College, in an earlier time, was supposed to be an uncomfortable experience because growth is always a challenge. It was where a student left behind the rote learning of childhood and accepted the anxiety, discomfort, and challenge of complexity that leads to deeper knowledge – hopefully, for a lifetime.

      That, sadly, is no longer how higher education is viewed, either by colleges or by students. College today is a client-centered experience. Rather than disabuse students of their intellectual solipsism, the modern university reinforces it. Students can leave the campus without fully accepting that they’ve met anyone more intelligent than they are, either among their peers or their professors (insofar as they even bother to make that distinction).

      This client model arose from a competition for students that has led to institutions’ marketing a “college experience” rather than an education. Competition for tuition dollars – too often drawn thoughtlessly from an inexhaustible well of loans – means that students now shop for colleges the way adults shop for cars. Young people then sign up for college without a lot of thought given to how to graduate or what to do afterward. Four years turns into five and, increasingly, six or more. (A graduate of a well-known party school in California described his education as “those magical seven years between high school and your first warehouse job.”)

      A limited diet of study has turned into an expensive educational buffet, laden mostly with intellectual junk food, but little adult supervision to ensure that the students choose nutrition over nonsense. Faculty members often act as retailers for their courses rather than educators. As a professor at an elite college once said to me, “Some days I feel less like a teacher and more like a clerk in an expensive boutique.””
      Tom Nichols in

      • Ackar –

        I read Tom Nichols article twice carefully. Based on my reading of other informed writers, Prof. Nichol characterizations and assertions are on target, deeply informed, and concurred in by his responsible peers.

        One area that he did not fully cover, perhaps by choice, was how the today’s Higher Education system has over time been built to acerbate and accentuate these problems, weaving them systematically and deep into the institutional fabric and culture of today’s colleges and universities. I think the pace of this destruction and its replacement with institutions that are systematically ill equipped and increasingly incompetent to teach the great majority of today’s students, has increased rapidly of late. And, of course, we are seeing its damaged students all around us.

        I’ll try to touch on this tomorrow.

        • In short, however, I suspect that a four year enlistment in the US Marine Corps starting off with boot camp at Paris Island or San Diego Recruit Despot would likely benefit the majority of this year’s entering Harvard freshman undergraduate class far more than four years at Harvard.

          And, I suspect that this reality would hold true of most any other college and university that America’s kids, whether “the best and brightest” or otherwise, chose to attend in lieu of such enlistment.

      • This quote reminds me of how the twin forces of a tumultuous age (the 1960’s) combined with the more recent revolutionary age represented by UVA’s outgoing (thank God) President Teresa Sullivan to destroy Higher Education that use to teach America’s college and university students:

        “Soren Kierkegaard is once supposed to have said; “A passionate tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down; but a revolutionary age which is, at the same time, reflective and passionless leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance.”

        This quote comes from Peter Hitchens, An Empty Parliament found at:

      • Solzhenitsyn told us in his 197o Nobel Prize lecture that literature hands down through generations a form of “condensed and irrefutable human experience … that defies distortion and falsehood (and thus) … preserves and protects a nations soul.” A precious culture under constant attack.

        So for example Sholzhenitsyn in Gulag Archipelago describes for us Soviet interrogation of citizens who don’t endorse Soviet ideology, and how the avant guard intellectuals in Russian before the Revolution paved the way for decades of monstrous horror and human degradation :

        “If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov, who spend all their time guessing what would happen in 20, 30, or 40 years had been told that in 40 years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia such that:

        Prisoners would have their skulls squeezed with iron rings; human beings would be lowered into an acid bath or be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; or that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the secret brand); or a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that the luckiest prisoners would be kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, (well then) not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all of its heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.”

        Thus only 50 years earlier Lenin’s Bolsheviks found a fertile ground in which to plant modern Totalitarianism driven by ideology as later refined by Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and many others, to “control every aspect of life, to redesign the earth, and to remake the human soul.”

        And Solzhenitsyn told us how in the early 20th century the Russian avant-garde intellectuals seeded the ground for this horror by, “calling for the destruction of the Racines, the Murillos, and the Raphaels, so the bullets would bounce off the museum walls,” and by demanding that the “classics of Russian Literature … be thrown overboard from the the ship of modernity”, and so that as a result the avant-garde intellectuals would be welcomed as “faithful allies” of the murderous Bolsheviks who gave the Russian avant-garde intellectuals “the power to administrate over Culture” until they too were destroyed along with tens of millions of innocents.

        And, here too 8 year later in America at Harvard University, Solzhenitsyn, in the fashion of a biblical prophet, echoed his Gulag warnings to Americans against their postmodernist teachings to American Youth that, after all the horrors that had happened in the worlds recent collective memory – the torture and murder of tens of millions of innocents – still found root in the American Academy – and he yet again in different words expressed dismay that America’s post modern intellectuals could still believe and teach “that evil is merely a social construct” and that “absolute truths do not exist any how … and that nor is it worthwhile to strive for some kind of higher meaning …” in our lives.

        And Solzhenitsyn again and again returned to his grand theme asking why after all of the century’s horror could post modernist American intellectuals spoon fed by corrupted intellectuals of an exhausted Europe could do all the damage they were bent upon doing. Like as he earlier said intellectuals had done so often before “in one grand sweep dismiss as worthless all of classical Russian literature – which never disdained reality and always sought truth, steeped as it is in love and compassion toward all human beings, and especially toward those who suffer.”

        See Solzhenitsyn’s Cathedrals, by Gary Saul Morson, in this October’s New Criterion.

        The more we consider the writings wisdom of the Russian Solzhenitsyn who understood America so well, the more we will understand how so many colleges and universities got to the place they are today.

      • Excerpts from Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 commencement speech at Harvard:

        “To an outside observer the most striking feature is that the West has lost its courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and (each institution but) … the decline is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society … there are many courageous individuals but they have no determining influence on public life.

        Political and intellectual bureaucrats (in America) show depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions and in their statements, and even more so in their theoretical reflections to explain how realistic, reasonable, as well as intellectually and even morally warranted it is, to base state policies on weakness and cowardice.

        And the decline in courage is ironically emphasized by occasional explosions of anger and inflexibility on the part of those same (cowardly) bureaucrats when dealing with (others who are weak), or with currents that cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue tied and paralyzed when they deal with (others) who are powerful and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists. (Here) one should point out the from ancient times decline in courage is () the beginning of the end.

        (While) the majority of the people have been granted well being (beyond) their fathers and grandfathers (wildest) dreams … (there is) the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life, a struggle that imprints many western faces with worry and even depression … (and leaves) an active and intense competition that permeates thought without opening space for free spiritual development.

        American statesmen who want to achieve something highly important and constructive has to move with caution and timidly as there are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him … from the beginning laying dozens of traps. So mediocrity triumphs.

        (Meanwhile) destructive and irresponsible freedom (enjoys) boundless space. Society has little defense against the abyss of human decadence, for example the misuse of violence against young people, and (entertainments) full of pornography, crime, and horror. Life so organized () cannot defend itself against the corrosion of evil. So evil has come about gradually (as if) born from a humanistic and benevolent concept that there is no inherent evil in human nature, as if the world belongs to mankind and all defects of life are caused by wrong social systems, which must be corrected.

        (In the American press) there is no moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion (nor is there any responsibility) to readers or history. There are few examples of any obligation to correct mistakes … it would damage sales. (And) because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors, and suppositions to fill the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified; they will stay in the readers’ memory.

        (So) the press can stimulate public opinion and miseducate it. (In America) the slogan is that everyone is entitled to know everything. But this is a false slogan, the characteristic of a false era (as the people should have) the right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, and vain talk. (Instead) hastiness and superficiality are the psychic disease of the 20th century, (particularly in the (media), and surprisingly given the alleged freedom, the western press mostly gives emphasis to their own opinions (and prevalent group think).

        The west does not admit the intrinsic evil or man nor does it see any higher task that getting happiness on earth (so) worships man and his material needs, (at expense of spiritual needs) as if man has no superior sense, … (thus) providing access for evil (as) mere freedom does not in the least solve all problems of human life and it even hides a number of new ones. So man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer. And as humanism in its development became more and more materialistic, it made itself increasingly accessible to speculation and manipulation, first by socialism then communism.

  2. Excellent post, and thank you CB. Agree with you Reed about the history testing cuts. This makes no sense: Bacon writes about how the State has little leverage over the local school boards, yet the one form of leverage that COULD be applied is the shaming effect of publicizing those poor test results in the jurisdictions that produce them (presumably, mostly the same jurisdictions for which decertification and State takeovers are an inadequate remedy). Why would anyone, least of all the central State education bureaucracy, cut back on these tests?

  3. “This client model arose from a competition for students that has led to institutions’ marketing a “college experience” rather than an education.”

    Hmmm …

    All I ever hear these days is how hard it is to get into decent-to-average colleges. “It’s so hard to get into UVA!” “My Bessie had a 4.3 GPA and couldn’t get into Virginia Tech.” “James Madison has become very competitive.”

    Why do colleges have to compete for students when it sounds like students are scrambling to get into college? If UVA cancelled its intercollegiate sports programs tomorrow do you think they’d have empty slots in the first year class next Fall? What if they cancelled everything but the two money-makers, football and Men’s basketball? Would there be any material fall off in applications?

    I think it’s different. The drying up of good middle class jobs that didn’t require a college education made people desperate to get into college. Demand went up faster than supply. College administrators did just what the corporate executives they claim to hate would have done – raised prices. More “profits” in the form of excess cash. That lets the college administrators splash money on all kinds of half-assed things that tickled their fancy – from overpriced dining halls to multi-million dollar per year salaries for the football coach.

    I’ll give the public college administrators credit. They’ve pulled off an almost Dominion-Resources-like scam. They somehow convinced the citizens that skyrocketing tuition at public college is somehow nothing like skyrocketing taxes. They then flagrantly piss the money away and nobody says a word. Can you imagine the outcry if Henrico County’s government center had a cafeteria that served the second best food of any cafeteria in any government building in the country as Henrico raised the real estate taxes again and again and again?

  4. ‘excess cash’ = bigger and more of whatever will increase demand!!!

    More than 88 schools failed to achieve full accreditation by the way -more like 300…. as there are all kind of “almost” categories that are a notch up from “failed to achieve accreditation”.

    You’ll find these schools all through Virginia… including in some of the better school districts.

    I have no problem what-so-ever letting competitors to the public school system find more successful ways to achieve academic benchmarks but they must be held to the same standard of transparency and accountability.

    re: “history” – it simply boils down to this. There are not enough hours in the day to teach all SOL subjects and when you get right down to it – you’re having to choose whether it’s history or literacy and literacy is fundamental to education.. if you cannot read… what good is history – if you can’t read?

    The real world is making tough choices rather than people believing you can do it all.

    Talk to real teachers who actually teach about having too many SOLs. In the end, it harms kids who do not get enough time on task on the fundamentals and that’s especially true in the elementary grades… A kid who cannot read – has a lot more problems than ignorance of history.

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