Governor Bob Tackles Education Reform

by James A. Bacon

Well, well, Gov. Bob McDonnell has finally found his inner radical. His legislative proposals for economic development and energy are pretty tame stuff, but the educational agenda he announced yesterday would push Virginia schools way out of their comfort zone. Indeed, I might be so bold as to suggest that this package could become one of the pieces of landmark legislation that comes to define his term in office.

Among many other things, the reform package would overthrow the so-called “King’s Dominion law,” promote virtual schools and overhaul the teacher evaluation system. Let’s take a closer look at the reform package, a summary of which you can see here.

Calendar reform. This measure would repeal the requirement that school divisions must begin their school term after Labor Day (unless they have a waiver to increase the length of the school year). Say good-bye to the school calendar set when children were needed to labor in their families’ farm fields and defended so that King’s Dominion and other seasonal businesses, primarily in the tourism industry, could find ready summer employment. (My pet theory is that King’s Dominion and the others now employ so many temporary workers from other countries — it’s amazing how many young people from Eastern Europe and Latin America work in Virginia resorts — that they don’t need American student workers anymore.)

In a knowledge-intensive economy, education becomes the highest priority. The school calendar must be configured to meet the needs of the students, not the needs of the tourism industry.

Virtual schools. At least three measures would advance the development of the virtual-school option in Virginia. One would establish regulations for accrediting virtual schools that enroll students full time. A second would establish “alternative licensure” for virtual school teachers. And a third would set up an Innovative Options Technical Advisory Committee to guide applicants for charter schools, college-partnership laboratory schools and virtual school programs through the planning process. The administration’s press release was sparse on details, but these all sound like necessary steps for legitimizing virtual schools and making them a viable educational option.

Teacher and administrator contracts. Here’s what the McDonnell press release says:

Establish an annual contract and evaluation process versus the current continuing contract practice for teachers and principals. It will allow for a new evaluation system to work by attracting and retaining the top-tier educators in our K-12 public schools. Seventeen other states have already made changes to their contract and tenure laws.

The only context that the McDonnell press release provides is the following:

Speaking about the teacher accountability and contract requirement changes, Brenda Alspaugh, who retired from Chesterfield County schools after a 33-year teaching career said, “This proposed reform provides a model that holds teachers, principals and superintendents continually accountable. It helps to ensure that schools are staffed with competent professionals that continue to meet the diverse needs of all students.”

The press release notes that the proposed evaluation process would help “attract” and “retain” better teachers and administrators. Implicit is the idea that it also will make it easier to “fire” bad educators. Just a guess. If so, we can expect strong push back from the educational lobby. This could be one of the most contentious issues of the 2012 General Assembly.

The quotes from various educators in the press release all emphasize the critical role of education in preparing Virginia students to compete in a globally competitive economy. Good. We no longer have the luxury of lethargy in the way we teach our children. McDonnell seems to understand the imperative to adapt or die.

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