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RSD-Inspired District to Start in Virginia

Starting in July, Virginia will be home to the nation's fourth state-run school district. The Opportunity Educational Institution, or OEI, is expected to take over schools that have not been accredited for four or more years running.

Right now, just four schools in the state would qualify for the new district, which wouldn't start running schools until 2014-15. But the proposal has ruffled the feathers of leaders in school districts and various education associations. When I spoke to them, they all said that Virginia has one of the highest-performing public school systems in the country, according to Education Week's Quality Counts report. They were skeptical of plans to improve schools by shifting governance, and said that some plans were still unclear.

For instance, a middle school that has been taken over by the state would still be part of a feeder pattern that takes students from an elementary school and sends them to a high school that are both run by the local board, not the state. What kind of continuity and communication would be ensured by the new district?

You can read more about the proposal and the reaction to the new district in Virginia here in this article I wrote for the current edition of Education Week.

The state is looking for an executive director who can develop plans and a team to lead the new district, said Julia Ciarlo Hammond, the director of legislative affairs and a policy advisor to Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who is a proponent of the idea. The planners spent time in Tennessee, where they met with Chris Barbic, the former head of YES! Prep charter schools who is now running the state-run Achievement School District in Memphis.

That new leader will help determine what direction turnarounds in the state will head in. One possibility is chartering. Districts are the only authorizers of charter schools in the state, but this new state-run district would also have authorizing power. Virginia has only four charter schools so far—so the OEI could open the door to more of these schools in the state.

This article from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative thank tank, laments the lack of charter schools in the state, saying that Virginia could model itself off of the Michigan or nearby District of Columbia school systems.

Since these districts are getting regular attention in the edusphere, I wanted to check to see where, exactly, this big idea came from. It turns out that, though states had been taking over districts for years, this particular structure was the brainchild of a single person within in a different state's government. Ten years ago, Leslie Jacobs, then a member of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in Louisiana, developed a plan to recover failing schools in the state by creating a special state-run district that would take over those schools and give them the chance to start from scratch, either as turnarounds or as newly chartered schools.

The idea, she said in an interview, came from bankruptcy court: When a school's in dire straits academically, the state-run Recovery School District, or RSD, can ideally give it a fresh start.

That big idea has gained some traction in recent years. Tennessee and Michigan have created similar authorities that are in their first year of operation.

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