Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, center, meets with Alexandria school officials during an educational summit at T.C. Williams High School as part of his “This Commonwealth of Opportunity” tour.
Photo by Michael Lee Pope.
Sitting face to face with Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell at T.C. Williams, Alexandria School Board Chairwoman Karen Graf challenged the sweeping education reform that threatens to remove Jefferson-Houston School from the city's public school system. McDonnell was in Alexandria as part of his "This Commonwealth of Opportunity" tour to celebrate what he sees as his administration's major accomplishment in education policy, the Opportunity Educational Institution effort designed to take over troubled schools.
"We feel this law, as written, does not collaborate with the local community to help these districts create sustainable solutions," said Graf toward the end of the summit. "Our main ask, is that we want the state to listen, collaborate and show flexibility with our School Board, our City Council and our local community."
To quality as a troubled school, educational institutions must fail to meet accreditation standards for three years in a row. Jefferson-Houston School is the only school in Northern Virginia that qualifies, a Kindergarten through eighth grade facility that has failed to meet accreditation standards for 10 our of the last 11 years. When asked about the School Board chairwoman's comments that Alexandria school leaders do not feel that the governor's takeover plan is collaborative, the governor disagreed.
"Well, I'm here collaborating," said McDonnell. "The debate over the law has passed, and the question now is how do we make this work?"
ALEXANDRIA LEADERS believe the debate might not be over quite yet. Last month, members of the City Council and School Board held a rare joint executive session to discuss the possibility of filing a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of the Opportunity Educational Institution law. Critics of the law say the funding provision is unconstitutional because it commandeers local tax dollars for state use.
"To me, it's a first-year law exam of: Is this unconstitutional or not?" said School Board Vice Chairman Justin Keating. "If my intern had written that statute, I would have thrown it back at him as being unacceptable."
Supporters of the takeover effort point to a section of the Virginia Constitution directing the Board of Education to divide the commonwealth into "geographical" areas "subject to such criteria and conditions as the General Assembly may prescribe." Now that legislators have approved the bill and the governor has signed it, supporters say, the constitutional threshold has already been met.
"The General Assembly set criteria that says they can take over a school if it's failing," said Del. Dave Albo (R-42). "I think they would automatically lose the case before it starts."
NO LAWSUIT has been filed, and in comments after the governor's legislative summit last week, city leaders and school officials were clear that they are willing to wait until after the next General Assembly session before they would consider asking the courts to stop the takeover of Jefferson-Houston. Graf said she hoped the coming session might see legislators repeal the Opportunity Educational Institution or at least add more local control to the takeover.
"I intend to look at changes or a repeal of the OEI in the next legislative session," said Del. Rob Krupicka (D-45), "with the goal of creating a system that focuses on struggling schools but does it in a way that makes local governments more of a partner as opposed to confrontational the way the current system is."
City Council and School Board members are sensitive to how a lawsuit might be perceived during a time when Jefferson-Houston has failed to make any progress. Recent years have seen an increasing decline. In the most recent set of test scores, for example, only 29 percent of black students showed basic proficiency in math. And only 46 percent of students with disabilities at Jefferson-Houston could demonstrate basic English skills.
“The situation at Jefferson-Houston has been a grave concern to all of us for many years,” said Virginia Board of Education president David Foster during a March meeting.
JEFFERSON-HOUSTON has been in tailspin since 1999, when the Alexandria School Board adopted a redistricting plan that created a racial imbalance at the school. In one year, the school went from having 50 percent of its students eligible for free and reduced lunch to 77 percent. Since that time, the school’s enrollment had plummeted from 486 in 2000 to 361 students today — and that’s after adding sixth, seventh and eighth grade classes to the school.
"I think they need to let the takeover happen," said Bea Porter, who will have two grandchildren attending the school this fall. "There's no need to stall because they have done so poorly for so long that it's time for somebody else to come in and take over."