So, Bob McDonnell sent for a couple of his Republican buddies to sell his "plan" to improve Virginia K-12 education. First, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush joined him to tout the A-F grading system for schools, and then he appeared with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to praise for-profit take-over of what are labeled as "failing schools." (By the way, Jeb Bush has been accused of pushing state laws that benefit the companies donating to his " Foundation for Excellence in Education.")
I would be glad to tell Bob McDonnell some facts about what's wrong with the public school system in Virginia. For starters, the state has cut tens of millions of dollars in state aid to education to balance the budget during the Great Recession. Because state funding doesn't even cover, on average, half of the requirements for quality education, local governments have to fill in the financial gaps. That builds in one reason for some school to fail. Wealthy school divisions fairly easily make up for the shortfall using property taxes. Poor divisions can't. Our schools become automatically stratified by economic class.
Areas with high poverty rates and poor families that are more likely to be dysfunctional send students to public schools where teachers are expected to work miracles by somehow eliminating all the problems caused by their students' social and family situations.
We don't want to admit it, but Virginia is a highly stratified society. Property taxes, the main ingredient in local taxes, will be lowest in areas of high poverty and highest in areas of high income. While Virginia is ranked 6th in wealth among states, take out the incomes of NoVA and you will see a far different income picture. Fairfax County is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation. Check out the average income in places like Buchanan County and Lee County, and you'll see the disparity. Remember that these places have to fund school systems, too.
While Virginia is 6th in median income, it is 30th in average teacher income. This General Assembly also has attacked teachers by extending the time for a teacher to get tenure to five years and permitting the firing of a teacher with one unfavorable evaluation. That sort of dismissal of the importance of the teaching profession will result in just one thing: The best teachers will go the other states. Why should they stay in a state that doesn't value them?
Virginia is 34th in state and local revenue dedicated to education, tied with Alabama and Mississippi. Now, McDonnell wants the state to take over so-called "failing" schools. Will that just be an excuse to sell those schools to for-profit school management firms, the same guys who failed to improve schools in Baltimore and other places?
How can we improve those schools that aren't achieving? Start by looking at the usual situations in teacher preparation. Teacher preparation in our colleges and universities is dispensed by professors who, for the most part, have not had much experience in public schools. Students have no hands-on preparation except for a few month as a student teacher. Potential teachers are not given techniques for controlling a class effectively. Their first assignments are probably going to be in the most difficult classes in a school. If they get a job in a school in a poor community, chances are they will be underpaid and will leave at the first opportunity.
A better plan would be for teachers hired in those "failing" schools to be able to earn a meaningful bonus for undertaking such a difficult assignment, yet be required to prove they deserve it, with teachers who have proven their ability as educators given first choice. Perhaps technology could be harnessed to make education in those schools more effective. The state could give special grants to those schools to provide services for children who need special services because of the situations in their lives.
Do I believe any of the above will happen?. Of course, not. Education in American depends on where you live and who your parents are. That was not so true when I was in school, but sadly, it is today. Add to that the fact that some people smell big profits to be gained from phony "educational reform" and you have Virginia education today under Gov. Bob McDonnell.
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