Govs. McDonnell and Haslam: “We Are Taking Action” to Fix American Public Schools

Posted: Apr 02, 2013 5:30 PM

One issue of consequence that is often forgotten -- especially when the nation is drowning in debt and unemployment remains stubbornly high -- is that the U.S. public education system is languishing in a state of disrepair. Plainly put, too many young people are trapped in failing schools. And while the founding fathers recognized that a thriving republic cannot long endure without an enlightened and educated citizenry, too many lawmakers -- from both political parties -- seem wholly content with the status quo.

But thankfully, not everyone is.

Enter Republican Governors Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Bill Haslam of Tennessee. Today, they published a joint op-ed in Politico highlighting their innovative and exciting new proposals to help children in failing schools reach their full potential. Here’s an excerpt:

A free society cannot afford to relegate its children to failing schools year after year simply because of their ZIP code. In Virginia and Tennessee, we are taking action.

In 2010, Tennessee created a new statewide school district to rescue failing schools. With the hiring of a dynamic leader in 2011, this entity — known as the Achievement School District — began the planning process to turn around the state’s worst performing schools. The passage of Tennessee’s No Child Left Behind waiver bill in early 2012 defined the state’s lowest performing schools as those in the bottom 5 percent in overall achievement. The ASD’s mission is to catapult these 83 schools straight to the top 25 percent in the state through a portfolio of management options including the state itself or a charter organization authorized by the ASD. The ASD is set up to dramatically expand students’ life and career options, engage parents and community members in new and exciting ways, and help ensure a better future for the state of Tennessee.

This year, Virginia created the Opportunity Educational Institution with the same goal. The OEI is similar to a school board and will step in when schools have chronically failed to address deficiencies on their own, to the point of being without full accreditation. In this scenario, the OEI board charts a course of action based on the unique needs of the school and community to reform the school. An OEI school could be transitioned to a public charter school, managed directly by the OEI or reorganized and returned to local school division management.

These are excellent first steps in what will obviously be a long, difficult road to rebuilding America’s education system from the bottom up. On the other hand, there is perhaps a more immediate way Republicans and Democrats (especially in positions of leadership) can accelerate that process: embracing school vouchers. Michael Gerson explains:

But even small, restricted choice programs have shown promising results -- not revolutionary, but promising. Last year a group of nine leading educational researchers summarized the evidence this way: "Among voucher programs, random-assignment studies generally find modest improvements in reading or math scores, or both. Achievement gains are typically small in each year, but cumulative over time. Graduation rates have been studied less often, but the available evidence indicates a substantial positive impact. ... Other research questions regarding voucher program participants have included student safety, parent satisfaction, racial integration, services for students with disabilities, and outcomes related to civic participation and values. Results from these studies are consistently positive."

Special interest groups will oppose tooth-and-nail any and all proposals that aim to bring about more accountability and transparency in public schools. This is to be expected. But education reform advocates should not lose heart: support for choice generally -- and vouchers in particular -- seems to be growing. How long, after all, can parents tolerate a system that puts the demands of the teachers union ahead of the needs of children?

Admittedly, school choice is just one avenue that leads to higher levels of achievement. But it’s a start -- and a movement Governor McDonnell and Governor Haslam should be proud of supporting.

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