Games Schools Play

Are City of Richmond school administrators manipulating the numbers to make it look like they’re doing a better job of running the system than they really are? That’s the conclusion of Del. Joseph D. Morrissey, D-Henrico, who yesterday charged Richmond schools of wrongfully taking credit for the SAT scores of high-performing students at the regional Maggie T. Walker Governor’s School, reports the Times-Dispatch.

Maggie Walker, which is located inside the Richmond city limits, is a highly selective school filled with some of the brightest students from across the Richmond metropolitan region. Its students get high scores on their SATs — an average of 696 for reading and 683 for math in the 2009-2010 school year.

By adding the Maggie Walker scores to the city of Richmond scores, which run 200 to 300 points lower, the school system is masking the poor performance at the city’s other eight high schools. Said Morrisey: “It’s not fair for the Richmond Public Schools to take credit for scores … that they have no influence in. They are not hiring the teachers. They are not supervising the teachers. They are not setting policy.”

Richmond school officials say they are just reporting the data as it is provided by the College Board, which administers the SATs. The College Board reports Maggie Walker’s results to Richmond because the city is the designated fiscal agent for the school.

What I find interesting about this flap, which otherwise might seem to be a tempest in a teapot, is what it says about the dynamics of school reform. Democrats have long supported the educational status quo, arguing that the only thing schools needed was mo’ money. But that attitude is changing. Morrissey belongs to a new breed of Democrats that appears to recognize that public schools also need to make deep, structural changes to the way they operate, and that school officials need to be held accountable. That’s what this is all about: accountability.

What makes this mini-controversy all the more interesting is that Morrissey, who is white, is pondering a run against Henry Marsh, who is black, in a heavily black senatorial district. Marsh, a Civil Rights-era hero, is closely associated with Richmond’s African-American political establishment. It appears that Morrissey is betting that school accountability will trump racial loyalty among African-American voters. If Morrissey does decide to run, this will be a very interesting race to watch. It could signal a sea-change in Democratic Party politics.

Update: Morrissey has announced that he will not run against Marsh.

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