01/15/15: Another tool in the school toolbox

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

PUBLIC SCHOOLS need all the help they can get.

I’ve no doubt the accreditation ratings released last September helped propel the successful referendum for electing School Board members in Norfolk. As we await a decision from the City Council on that process, the General Assembly is taking up several bills that could put school divisions on a path to improvement.

Leading the pack is proposed legislation from Del. Chris Stolle, whose Virginia Beach-based 83rd District encompasses part of Norfolk.

The bill, HB 1585, would allow flexibility in scheduling for those schools that fail to achieve full accreditation. According to the Virginia Department of Education, 32 percent of the state’s public schools lacked fully accredited status. In Norfolk, that number approaches 70 percent.

Since 1986, Virginia has prohibited districts from starting class before Labor Day. Waivers from the so-called “Kings Dominion Law” have been easily obtained for those who meet one of four “good cause” criteria. The closure for weather and other emergency conditions — an average of eight days per year during any 5 of the last 10 years — is the most used. Schools may also choose a four-day weekly calendar, but still have to start after Labor Day.

Stolle’s bill seeks to add two alternative schedules to Va. Code § 22.1-79.1. One would allow the operation of year-round schools, a trend in education. A report by the Congressional Research Service shows that the number of year-round schools has increased by roughly 26 percent since 2007.

The other would allow local school boards to determine the opening date of the school year. Each option would be available to any school that failed to achieve full accreditation, or districtwide if more than 15 percent of schools were not fully accredited.

While members of our legislature revere Thomas Jefferson, they conveniently ignore his admonition, “That government is best which is closest to the people.” Local school boards are much closer to the people than Richmond and in a better position to determine what is best for students. Under pressure from the tourism industry, the legislature has been loath to repeal the Kings Dominion law. Bills that attempt to repeal it have failed.

And even if the legislature somehow managed to pass one, I’ve doubts Gov. Terry McAuliffe would sign it. He was quoted as saying, “As a general rule, I do not support going [to school] before Labor Day.”

Stolle’s bill does not seek to repeal the Kings Dominion Law. Unfortunately, that nuance was lost on the members of the Senate Committee on Education and Health last year, when the bill was lumped with repeal bills, which the committee chose not to act on.

HB 1585 deserves to be heard for what it is: another tool in the toolbox for those schools which haven’t reached full accreditation. All students deserve the opportunity to achieve; anything less is shortchanging them — and us. The Senate should join the House in passing this bill.

The governor has indicated that he might be supportive.

In that same conversation with the Roanoke Times, he continued, “… but I clearly would be open to looking at specific circumstances.”

Increasing the number of schools in Virginia that are fully accredited certainly should fit his criteria.