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School Takeover Authority Gets Nod in Virginia

A legislative plan to allow a state agency to take control of struggling schools in Virginia has been approved by the General Assembly and appears set to be signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, although there is one budget-related hurdle still to clear.

The proposal in Senate Bill 1324 headed to McDonnell's desk would create an Opportunity Educational Institution, or OEI, with nine voting members to be be selected by the governor and members of the legislature. (The governor would also appoint an executive director.) It would have the authority to take over supervision of schools denied accreditation by the state, as well as schools that are on "warning" status for three consecutive years.

"The Board shall supervise and operate schools in the Opportunity Educational Institution in whatever manner that it determines to be most likely to achieve full accreditation for each school in the Institution, including the utilization of charter schools and college partnership laboratory schools," the bill reads.

If a school has been run by the institution for four years and six months, at the latest, the institution must make a recommendation as to whether it should retain control of the school longer, or else be transferred back to local, traditional district control. No schools would be transferred to the institution until after the 2013-14 school year. Right now, the Associated Press notes, only six schools would qualify to be transferred to the new state-supervision model, although of course in the next 18 months or so, that number could changes significantly.

If that plan sounds roughly similar to the Recovery School District in Louisiana, that's because the plan heading to McDonnell, a Republican, was modeled on it. The success of the RSD, if you listen to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, also a Republican, is illustrated by the fact that since the RSD began, the share of students attending a "failing" school in New Orleans (where the vast majority of RSD schools are located) has plunged to 29 percent from 77 percent. The not-so-stellar news? Schools in the RSD on average still receive a D grade.

The new Virginia plan has McDonnell's support, since he has included a $600,000 line item in the proposed state budget to help get its new OEI up and running. But since the state hasn't settled on a fiscal plan for the coming year yet, the money to run the OEI hasn't been guaranteed yet.

In a statement signed by the Virginia School Boards Association, the Virginia Association of Counties, and the Virginia PTA, several groups declared that the bill was bad on policy and in principle: "The legislation does not spell out the criteria to be used in determining which schools will be taken over by the OEI. Nor are details provided to explain what happens if schools operated by the OEI fail to improve educational performance. Further, the bills are silent regarding the day‐to‐day operations of schools."

Remember, Virginia is also poised to institute an A-F grading system of schools, another plan praised by McDonnell as a way to "allow us to continue to improve the quality of education for all Virginia students, in all our cities and counties" and allow parents and communities a bigger voice in advocating for their schools. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican who is the chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education and a strong advocate for A-F grading, joined McDonnell on a conference call with reporters earlier this month to praise that legislation.

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