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Virginia governor highlights education initiatives

McDonnell wants localities to set own start dates

- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2012

RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's education initiatives for kindergarten though 12th grade are likely to draw some bipartisan support in the coming General Assembly session — but they also have given out-of-power Democrats a toehold for their new role as the effective minority party.

Mr. McDonnell laid out his legislative priorities Monday at a news conference in Richmond, stressing that in order for Virginia to compete with other states in job creation and the economy, the state must provide adequate funding for education. Mr. McDonnell has proposed adding $438 million in new K-12 funding to his two-year budget, although $342 million of that will go toward teacher pensions. He also wants to add more than $200 million in the next two years for higher education.

"I remember the old saying when I was growing up — my dad kind of beat it into my head — 'If you want a good job, you've got to have a good education,' " he said, surrounded by students and legislators.

Perhaps the most prominent item Mr. McDonnell unveiled is a measure that would repeal the so-called "King's Dominion" law that bans school systems from starting their school year before Labor Day and allows local school boards to decide when to open their classrooms. The tourism and hospitality industry has long opposed repealing the law, in line with the stance Mr. McDonnell took during his days as a state delegate representing Virginia Beach.

Mr. McDonnell, though, said that the way to solve the problem is to look at what's in the best interests of the students and that local autonomy is a fundamentally good idea.

"I think the days of unfunded mandates, rigorous, inflexible policies foisted on the states by the federal government and on the localities by the states has got to end," he said. "It disrespects the sovereign authority that each level of government has."

The "King's Dominion" measure is one that is likely to receive bipartisan support. Lawmakers of both parties already have introduced bills that would grant that authority to local school boards on when to start the school year. Seventy-seven of 132 school systems in the state already have waivers releasing them from the mandate.

But Mr. McDonnell, a fierce advocate of charter schools and school choice, is also pushing a proposal that would provide tax credits to companies that contribute to scholarships for low-income students to help them attend the school of their choice. The measure was defeated last year and is one that Democrats deride as a voucher-type program, though actual school vouchers are prohibited by the state Constitution.

State Sen. Mark Obenshain, Harrisonburg Republican, who is working on a tax-credits measure, said that the typical progression of the legislation in other states has been "skepticism, passage, success, and then broad bipartisan support," noting that Pennsylvania's program was championed by former Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat.

That prospect is unlikely in Virginia, Sen. Janet D. Howell said.

"We don't have any money to give [for] private schools," the Fairfax Democrat said. "We've proposed massive cuts to public schools already, so I'm quite positive the Democrats will resist this with everything we've got."

Mr. McDonnell also wants to increase the percentage of the state sales tax that goes toward transportation from 0.5 percent to 0.75 percent for the next eight years, generating $110 million in revenue for road maintenance. The money would be diverted from the general fund, which goes toward paying for items like education.

"I think that's really a fundamental fight," said Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, Fairfax Democrat, noting that the sales tax was created in the 1960s for the express purpose of funding education — in that case, a state community college system. "When you fund transportation through the general fund, you're basically giving all the out-of-state users of our highways a free ride."

Mr. McDonnell also will meet resistance from the Virginia Education Association on a measure to establish an annual contract and evaluation process that would make it easier to oust ineffective teachers from the classroom — a proposal he readily acknowledged would not sit well with everyone. Teachers in Virginia now work under a three-year probationary period where they can be dismissed without reason, after which they can reach a continuing contract where they cannot be dismissed arbitrarily and have the opportunity to defend themselves, VEA President Kitty Boitnott said.

Mr. McDonnell said routine evaluation and analysis is an idea from the private sector that would serve the school system well.

"I don't think any professional, excellent school teacher in Virginia wants to tolerate the presence of another very mediocre or underperforming teacher ... who is compensated and treated in the same way," he said.

But Ms. Boitnott did not approve.

"At first blush, he's right," she said. "We don't like the sound of it."

She said it appeared to be an unnecessarily severe way to dismiss teachers and that she would look more closely at another teacher-related proposal that would streamline the grievance process.

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