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New Virginia State-Run District Under Fire

A state-run district in Virginia that is modeled after the Recovery School District in Louisiana has met with a legal challenge before it has hired an executive director or taken over any schools.

The Virginia School Boards Association and the Norfolk City School Board announced yesterday that they are filing suit in a Norfolk Circuit Court. The groups are calling for a judge to invalidate the legislation that created the Opportunity Educational Institution, or OEI, and prevent it from being implemented.

The OEI is part of the state's executive branch that would take over any school that has been unaccredited, or any school that's been "accredited with warning" for three years in a row. The OEI would receive the per-pupil funding for students attending its schools, and could turn the schools over to non- or for-profit school management organizations. The law authorizing the OEI went into effect on July 1.

The state's general assembly appointed the OEI's board members earlier this summer, but the state is actively searching for an executive director, said Julia Ciarlo-Hammond, a director of legislative affairs and policy for Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, a Republican.

It's not yet clear how many schools would be eligible for takeover, but Norfolk is home to at least two schools that might.

The VSBA and Norfolk challenge alleges that, while the state's constitution requires that schools be overseen by a school board, the board that's overseeing the OEI is a branch of the executive office. It also says that the state board of education is tasked with creating school districts, but the OEI was created by the state's legislature.

The governor's office responded emphatically, saying:

"The governor believes every child deserves the opportunity to attend a great school and have a real chance at success. If it takes now beating a lawsuit to provide them with that basic right, so be it. Frankly though, we'd rather be spending our time improving classrooms, not standing in courtrooms.

But earlier this month, McDonnell used slightly more ambivalent language at an event at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. Here's the Washington Post story:

"'The bottom line is these things are now the law,' McDonnell said, referring to the school report cards and the state [OEI] board. 'Our job is now to find out how we can work with [the local school board] to make these things work the very best they can,' he said."

State EdWatch checked in on the OEI when it was just a lowly Senate bill.

You can get more background on the plans for—and disputes around—the Opportunity Educational Institution in this Education Week article. Similar districts in Tennessee and Detroit are entering their second school years this fall, and the Louisiana district is responsible for most of the schools in New Orleans and many other schools in the state.

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