Richmond Times Dispatch (VA)
While Virginia was a national leader in developing substantive content standards for basic K-12 subjects in the 1990s, it has lagged badly in enabling parents to make choices as to which schools best meet those standards and their children’s particular needs. The Old Dominion has continued to falter on some important indicators of educational success, including the results announced this week on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the national test known as the Nation’s Report Card.
Across much of the South, a region that acquired a bad reputation in the 1950s and ‘60s for blocking equal educational opportunities as part of official resistance to racial integration, education authorities have taken strides toward redemption with innovative programs to expand options widely. Virginia, which gave birth to the ugly doctrine of “Massive Resistance,” will have the opportunity in 2012 to carve out its own niche in a new civil-rights movement centered on parental choice.
In the Year of School Choice that 2011 has become nationwide (according to The Wall Street Journal and a variety of pundits), North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida have led the way in the southeast. North Carolina became the latest in a growing list of states to expand private-sector options for parents of special-needs children, offering parents a nonrefundable tax credit of up to $6,000 for such education expenses as tuition, therapy, and tutoring.
Meanwhile, Georgia strengthened its Scholarship Tax Credit Program, allowing more students to take advantage, while also improving accountability for Student Scholarship Organizations.
Then there is Florida, a school reform leader not just for 2011 but for the past decade. The state’s emphasis on choice and accountability, the signature issue of Jeb Bush during his two terms as Governor, is now paying dividends in a trend line of increasing student achievement that is causing other states to take notice.
This year’s expansions of Florida school-choice programs include beefing-up the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program as well as the pioneering John M. McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities.
In 1998, Florida had one of the worst-performing public-school systems in the nation. Almost one-half of fourth-graders were functionally illiterate. The signal reform under Bush’s 1999-to-2007 governorship was the adoption of the Sunshine State Standards, to which testing and choice then were linked.
Under the A+ program, all schools received grades for the performance of their students, and families in persistently failing schools gained the right to transfer to a better school.
Among the many follow-up innovations: an end to social promotions, routes for experienced career-switchers to become teachers, the start of merit pay for teachers, and expansion of charter and virtual schools.
The results have been impressive, so much so that as many as 20 states have adopted at least a portion of the Jeb Bush reform agenda. Florida reduced its achievement gap between black and white fourth graders faster than the national average between 2002 and 2011, while Virginia did not.
An analysis of such achievement gaps shows that Virginia, and some other Southern states, would do well to consider the value of choice-based school reform.
While Virginians can take comfort from the fact that their children score slightly above average on national reading tests, other trends are less positive. Both white and black eighth graders scored lower in reading on the 2011 NAEP tests than they did in 2002. And the achievement gap between their scores was not reduced in any significant way over that period.
Absent other positive results, Virginia has every reason to increase educational freedom, and little reason not too. Florida saw its commitment to reform rewarded with both impressive test score gains and reductions in the achievement gap during that time.
Recently, Richmond’s first charter school (and the state’s first elementary charter), the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, announced that its students surpassed school district and state averages in every subject on the Standards of Learning tests in its first year. In fact, every group of their students (white, black, economically disadvantaged) outperformed both district and state, an accomplishment made more impressive by the fact that the school teaches a more truly diverse population of students than any other in the city.
Virginia’s schoolchildren could benefit greatly from a high-quality charter school movement that is successfully closing achievement gaps around the country. The same could be said for many of the proven reforms underway in Florida and elsewhere.
One of these is the growth of high-quality blended learning programs. Using technology and data to support teachers, blended classrooms combine online and in-person teaching to guide real-time adjustments to individual students’ strengths and weaknesses.
The record indicates that Virginia could make important strides toward becoming an education leader once again by empowering parents of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
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