Ed Reform In Virginia: Wadin’ Through This Waste Stormy Winter

The Washington Post (Chandler and Kunkle) take a look at Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s education record in Virginia.  Worth reading as several comments send a strong signal of the dismay among some conservatives about McDonnell’s education record, something that will have political ramifications going forward.  I’ve heard prominent Republicans, including serious presidential contenders, poor mouth Virginia on this score.

Ultimately, given the nature of the changes, the only fair grade is “incomplete.” In a few years we’ll be able to better assess if what the Governor set in motion drives real change and improvement. My take is that on the plus side of the ledger McDonnell reignited a dormant conversation about education reform in Virginia, that’s no small thing given that the state is one of the hardest for school improvement. And the Governor got a few things done that could have lasting impact, including ending the state’s embarrassing status as a net exporter Teach For America teachers. Over time that could fuel innovation here as well as more immediately help address acute problems in pockets of Virginia.

On the minus side, however, he waited until the end of his term to really launch his boldest education ideas.  Given the climate in Virginia education reform should have been a four year effort, not a fourth year effort.  Virginia clutches measures of performance that show good news but you don’t hear a lot about the nationally comparative outcomes measures, for example the National Assessment of Educational Progress, that don’t.  A genuine college and career ready standard would be an enormous shock to the Commonwealth.  The Governor should have talked about those issues from day one.  Instead you could never shake the sense that he was more interested in tax credits and private school choice than a full-on revamp of how Virginia thinks about school performance and accountability. The irony, of course, is that conservatives think he didn’t do enough on those issues, which many care about most, so in the end it may be a poorly considered political dice roll.

McDonnell also didn’t use dollars to leverage reform. The issue isn’t just the overall spending issues around Virginia, several of his proposals – charter schools, teacher quality, and school turnarounds for instance – could have been more ambitious and politically attractive with more money attached to them.  You can’t do reform on the cheap.

You can’t do reform on the light either. That’s the big thing to watch going forward.  Much of what McDonnell accomplished (school report cards, turnarounds, charter schools, teacher evaluations) can fairly be characterized as a light touch version of what leading states are doing. The risk is that good ideas, weakly implemented, end up being seen as weak ideas.  Given the tenor in Virginia a lot of players are hoping for exactly that and the Governor may have inadvertently played into their hands.

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