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By Sean Gorman April 22, 2013

Plan goes through changes

While running for governor, Bob McDonnell vowed he wouldn't accept excuses for underperforming schools.

His education agenda, released in June 2009, contained this promise: "As governor Bob McDonnell, will appoint a public school turnaround leader at the Department of Education whose sole mission will be to focus on the underperforming schools and set in motion urgent plans to eliminate obstacles for success."

The policy paper did not spell out how the turnaround leader would improve work already being done by DOE's Office of School Improvement, which was created earlier in the decade by then-Gov. Mark Warner to help schools that were not meeting state and federal standards.

After taking office in January 2010, McDonnell decided he was happy with the office's work and that there was no need to appoint a turnaround leader, according to Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for the governor. McDonnell "concluded that his original promise was satisfied," Caldwell wrote in an email.

Caldwell said McDonnell was particularly pleased by an April 2010 announcement by the Department of Education that it had selected four state-approved "turnaround partners" -- three educational services companies and Johns Hopkins University -- that school divisions could bring in to help underperforming schools.  

The department has required 36 "priority schools" -- the lowest performers in the state -- to bring in one of the outside turnaround partners. The action helps fulfill a waiver the state received from the 2001 "No Child Left Behind" federal education reform law.

Although McDonnell has not appointed a turnaround leader, he has taken another step that addresses the spirit of his campaign pledge to other improve failing schools. This winter, he successfully urged lawmakers to pass legislation that will allow the state to seize control of its worst performing schools.

The measure creates the state Opportunity Educational Institution which, starting in July 2014, will be empowered to take over a handful of schools that fail to meet certain state accreditation standards. The panel will have an executive director appointed by the governor and a nine-member board of legislators, educators and citizens. Critics -- including the Virginia School Board Association and the Virginia Education Association -- say the measure is unconstitutional and undercuts local control over schools.

Let's sum things up. McDonnell pledged to appoint a turnaround czar for failing schools only to declare, after he became governor, that the function already was being fulfilled by an existing agency and its director. This year, the governor endorsed successful legislation that will allow the state to take over the very worst schools.

McDonnell is addressing the problem of under-performing schools, but through an approach that has changed since his campaign. We rate this a Compromise.

Our Sources

McDonnell for Governor, "McDonnell unveils part two of education reform plan," June 4, 2009.

E-mail from Jeff Caldwell, spokesman for Governor Bob McDonnell, Jan. 31, 2013.

E-mail from Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, April 1, 2013.

Interview with Charles Pyle, April 1, 2013.

Virginia Department of Education, "State superintendent announces new option for public schools to expand opportunity and raise achievement," April 14, 2010.

Virginia Department of Education, "VDOE directs 485 schools to implement plans to narrow achievement gaps," Oct. 10, 2012.

Virginia Department of Education, "Accountability and Virginia public schools -- 2012-2013," accessed April 3, 2013.

Legislative Information System, SB 1324, accessed April 3, 2013.

Interview with Robley Jones, director of government relations at the Virginia Education

Association, April 2, 2013.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, "McDonnell seeks changes, more funds for division on failing schools,"  March 31, 2013.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, "House, Senate pass McDonnell" plan for failing schools," Feb. 6, 2013.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Lawmakers reject McDonnell bid to alter school takeover division," April 4, 2013.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, "Governor McDonnell takes action on ALL STUDENTS K-12 reform agenda," March 22, 2013.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, "Governor McDonnell announces phase three of the ALL STUDENTS agenda," Jan. 9, 2013.

Legislation Information System,HB 1500, Governor's Amendment 12, accessed April 2, 2013.

Gov. Bob McDonnell and Gov. Bill Haslam, op-ed in Politico, April 1, 2012.

Virginia Department of Education, "School Improvement and Reform,"  accessed April 3, 2013.

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