School & District Management

State District to Run Struggling Schools in Va.

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — June 11, 2013 3 min read
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Plans are underway in Virginia for the opening of a new state-run district aimed at taking over and turning around academic performance in some of the state’s lowest-performing schools—the fourth in a growing number of such entities across the nation.

Approved by state lawmakers earlier this year, Virginia’s version of the model is called the Opportunity Educational Institution, or OEI. Its creation comes 10 years after Louisiana established the Recovery School District, a then-unique state-run district that took over and attempted to turn around academically struggling schools in that state.

Similar districts in Tennessee and Michigan are finishing their first year of operating schools. The idea has been considered in Texas, where a bill to create such a district recently failed to pass the state Senate, among other states.

Federal policies like the No Child Left Behind Act and waivers from some of its requirements have given states incentives to look at new ways of improving their lowest-performing schools, said Nelson Smith, a senior adviser for the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA, who has written about the Louisiana and Tennessee models.

“I think we’ll see more of these,” he said. “There’s a structural advantage to being able to start fresh.”

Plans So Far

In Virginia, the bill will be signed into law later this month and is set to go into effect on July 1. Four schools—two in Norfolk, one in Petersburg, and one in Alexandria—have academic track records low enough to meet the state’s bar for taking over schools, said Javaid Siddiqi, the deputy state secretary of education.

Schools that have not been accredited by the state for four or more years are eligible to be taken over in the 2014-15 school year, and might be directly run by the state or turned over to a charter-management organization or education-management organization, Mr. Siddiqi said.

The state is searching for an executive director and board for the new district, who will help determine which strategies the schools use, Mr. Siddiqi said. The list of schools to be run by the OEI will be released in January.

But the plan stirred opposition from education associations in the state, which united against the bill as it moved through the legislature. “The state doesn’t have the ability to improve these schools, so they’ll turn it over to some company,” said Meg Gruber, the president of the Virginia Education Association, the state’s National Education Association affiliate.

Local Control

Joseph Melvin, the superintendent of the 4,000-student Petersburg city school system, said that the state had not consulted his district as the plan was developed, though some of its schools might become part of the new district.

“The OEI bill appears to be a state legislative measure to place charter-type schools in jurisdictions without local control and parental knowledge,” he said.

Virginia currently has just four charter schools, and only school districts can authorize new ones. The new district will be permitted to authorize charters, but it may or may not use that authority, said Julia Ciarlo Hammond, the director of legislative affairs and a policy adviser to Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican.

There are also concerns about the bill’s constitutionality. The Virginia School Boards Association plans to bring a legal challenge to the law over that issue this summer. A bill that would have advanced a constitutional amendment permitting the new district to exist did not pass the legislature this session.

Such concerns are common with state interventions, said the NACSA’s Mr. Smith. “We have a tradition of localism, but if, after many years, they haven’t done an effective job, what recourse does the state have?”

Some schools, Mr. Siddiqi said, had not been cooperating with turnaround companies or agencies named by the state to improve unaccredited schools.

Creating the OEI, by itself, does not guarantee success, said Justin Cohen, the president of the Boston-based Mass Insight Education School Turnaround Group. “The authority and conditions are merely a chance to get it right,” he said.

While the budget approved by the Virginia legislature is only $150,000—less than the governor requested—there are plans to raise more funds, Ms. Hammond said. State, local, and federal education funds would follow the student to the new district, she said.

When and how the new district will leave the schools it takes over is not yet clear, but “the idea is to rehab schools and return them to local districts,” Ms. Hammond said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Education Week as Virginia Joins Ranks of States Creating State-Run Districts

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