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Former and perhaps future Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently said that student performance in Peterburg, one of Virginia’s most financially troubled cities, vastly improved when he led the state from 2014 to 2018.
During a May 6 debate with four other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, McAuliffe said that when he took office, two-thirds of Petersburg’s public schools were unaccredited by the state because of poor academic performance.
"I’m very proud to say by the end of our term, with a lot of resources and a lot of help, every single Petersburg school was accredited when I left office," he said.
McAuliffe’s statement was disputed by former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, who grew up in Petersburg and also is running in the June 8 Democratic primary for governor. So, we looked into McAuliffe’s claim that all Petersburg schools were accredited at the end of his term and found a lot of problems.
Through 2017, Virginia accreditation of schools was based almost entirely on their students’ performance on standardized state tests. In 2018, additional factors were added such as absenteeism, learning gaps between students of different ethnicity and dropout rates.
McAuliffe’s term as governor ended in January 2018. Since he said every Petersburg school was accredited when he "left office," we looked at records from the 2017-2018 school year. They show none of the city’s six public schools was fully accredited then. In contrast, 86% of schools across the state were fully accredited.
Three Petersburg schools were denied accreditation that year and three were partially accredited.
McAuliffe’s campaign, however, told us the former governor’s claim is based on ratings for the 2018-2019 school year, which began months after McAuliffe left office.
The campaign pointed out that there is a one-year lag in Virginia’s accreditation process. That means credentialing for the post-McAuliffe 2018-2019 school year was based on tests that were taken when he was still governor and, according to his campaign, should be in McAuliffe’s record.
Although the point is credible, it also boosts McAuliffe’s record because the state Board of Education, filled with his appointees, enacted major changes to the accreditation process starting in the 2018-2019 school year. The board - carrying out a McAuliffe campaign promise - deemphasized standardized test results in determining whether a school is credentialed and added new measures such as absenteeism, achievement gaps between students of different backgrounds, and whether a school is showing improvement on the state exams.
Under the new standards, 92% of Virginia’s schools were fully accredited in 2018-2019 - up 6 percentage points from the previous year.
McAuliffe’s claim that "every single Petersburg school was accredited" is misleading. Only two of the city’s six schools were fully accredited - up none the previous year. The other four schools were "conditionally accredited," meaning they were performing below state standards in at least one area and required remedial action. They were among the bottom-performing 7% of schools in Virginia.
McAuliffe’s statement skirts another important factor: No Virginia public school has been denied accreditation since the new standards went into effect - conditionally accredited is the worst rating that has been doled out. (The state did not go through the rating process for the 2020-2021 school year because of COVID-19). During the 2017-2018 school year - the last under the old standards - 88 schools were denied accreditation.
When McAuliffe made his claim during the debate, Carroll Foy replied, "I would like to say that facts matter, and right now there is only one accredited school in Petersburg, Va." She was referring to the 2019-2020 ratings - the most recent - which fully accredited one of the city’s schools and deemed the other five conditionally accredited.
Under McAuliffe’s language, no distinction would be made and all six of the schools would be described as accredited.
McAuliffe says, "Every single Petersburg school was accredited when I left office," implying there was a turnaround in the city’s scholastic performance during his time as governor.
He’s dead wrong if you look at the end of his term in January 2018, when none of the city’s public schools was fully accredited by the state based on standardized testing, three were denied accreditation, and three were partially certified.
There’s a one-year lag in Virginia’s school accreditation, however, and McAuliffe’s campaign says he was referring to 2019 ratings that reflected Petersburg's academic performance from a year earlier, when McAuliffe left office. It’s a credible argument that McAuliffe should be judged on the 2019 rates, but it’s also highly advantageous to him because standards were eased that year and no Virginia public school was denied accreditation.
Two of Petersburg’s six schools were fully accredited in 2019, while 92% of schools across the state met that ideal. The other four were conditionally accredited, meaning they were performing below standards in at least one area and were required to take corrective actions. They were among the worst-performing 7% of Virginia schools.
So there are problems with McAuliffe’s claim, even when we give him the advantage of using the 2019 ratings. By saying all Petersburg schools were accredited - and deftly avoiding the distinction between fully and conditionally accredited - he creates a misleading impression of the city’s progress during his term.
We rate McAuliffe’s statement Mostly False.
Terry McAuliffe, Democatic gubernatorial debate comments, May 6, 2021 (38:55 mark).
Virginia Department of Education, "SOA: School Accreditation," accessed May 7, 2021.
VDOE, "School Accreditation Reports," 2013-2014, 2017-2018, 2018-2019.
VDOE, "Eighty-Six Percent of Schools Fully Accredited," Sept. 13, 2017.
VDOE, "New Accreditation Standards Require Continuous Achievement for all Schools," Sept. 27, 2018.
VDOE, "2019-2020 Accreditation Ratings Shine Light on School Progress and Needs," Sept. 30, 2019.
Jennifer Carroll Foy, Democratic gubernatorial debate comments, May 6, 2021 (39:25 mark).
Statement from McAuliffe’s campaign, May 7, 2021.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Va. school accreditation drops as standards rise," Sept. 20, 2013.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, "More schools accredited under new state rules," Sept. 28, 2018.
Report of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, 2017-2018, page 89.
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