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State might take over failing schools

Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) got what he asked for: a state-run school board to take over failing schools.

“I’m asking you to approve a bold initiative to establish a statewide Opportunity Educational Institution to provide a high-quality education alternative for children attending any chronically underperforming public elementary or secondary school,” McDonnell said in his State of the Commonwealth speech on the opening day of the 2013 legislative session.

That request was granted during the session’s final days when the House joined the Senate in passing Senate Bill 1324. The legislation now goes to the governor to be signed into law.

SB 1324 would set up a state-operated unit to take over schools that have been denied accreditation or have been warned for three consecutive years. A school loses accreditation when educational benchmarks are not met for four years in a row.

Currently, six Virginia schools would be eligible for the takeover; two of them are in Petersburg. The bill is set to take effect after the 2013-14 school year.

The bill passed the House, 64-34, on Feb. 20. It previously squeaked by in the Senate after Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling cast a tie-breaking vote.

McDonnell issued a statement after the measure won final approval.

“With today’s vote in the House, Virginia sends a message that the status quo is not acceptable in chronically failing schools. We have laid out a clear path to turn around those schools and provide the students who attend them with the world-class educational opportunities they deserve, he said.

Though it passed, the bill had its share of critics. Del. Kaye Kory (D-Dist. 38) opposed the legislation.

“I have many problems with the concept and the legislation,” Kory said. She cited, for example, “the lack of public involvement anywhere in the takeover process.”

“The Education Opportunity Institute board is appointed, not elected. Also, the funding for the school taken over by the EOI is largely comprised of local school system dollars appropriated by the EOI,” Kory said. “There is no precedent in Virginia for the state taking over schools without the locality’s consent and appropriating the locality’s tax dollars, as well.”

The Education Opportunity Institute received a budget of $150,000, far less than. McDonnell initially proposed. A renegotiation could happen before the bill gets his signature.

— Sam Isaacs, Capital News Service

Texting while driving bill goes to governor

Legislation cracking down on texting while driving is only Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R) signature away from becoming law after passing the Senate on Tuesday.

House Bill 1907 would change texting while driving from a secondary offense to a primary offense. Currently, you can be charged with texting while driving only if you have been stopped for some other violation.

Moreover, the bill, which passed the Senate on a 28-12 vote, would drastically increase the fines for texting while driving. The penalty would jump from $20 to $250 for a first offense and $50 to $500 for repeat violations.

Six other bills were incorporated into Anderson’s. HB 1907 includes proposals by Delegate Ben Cline, R-Amherst, and Delegate David Bulova, D-Fairfax, to make texting while driving punishable as reckless driving.

The bill does not prevent drivers from making cellphone calls or using GPS systems. It applies only when a motorist is using a “handheld personal communications device” to “manually enter multiple letters or text” or “read any email or text message.”

If McDonnell signs HB 1907, it would take effect July 1.

— Sam Isaacs, Capital News Service

Like kids, schools will get letter grades

Students will not be the only ones who might dread showing their grades to parents. Starting in 2014, each Virginia public school will get a very public letter grade ranging from A to F.

On the last day of the legislative session, the General Assembly passed a bill creating a system to rate each school on an A-to-F grading scale based on student performance.

The final version of House Bill 1999 was approved Saturday on a 22-17 vote in the Senate and a 65-31 vote in the House. This version had been negotiated through a conference committee of members from both chambers.

One difference between the conference committee’s report and the original draft of HB 1999 involves when the schools will receive their first letter grade.

In the original bill, schools would have been assigned a letter grade by October 2013. The grade would have been based primarily on state accreditation ratings and would not have taken into account students’ educational growth.

Under the adopted version, schools will not be given a grade until October 2014 after the Virginia Board of Education establishes standards to measure student growth.

Students’ academic growth will be based on statewide tests and school test scores. The numbers will be compared with scores from previous year scores and statewide averages.

The Virginia Association of School Superintendents has concerns about the grading system. It takes away the constitutional power of the cities and county governments to manage their own educational systems, said Pat Russo, president-elect of VASS and superintendent of Henrico County Public Schools.

VASS is concerned that if a school gets an F, it will be placed under state authority — usurping local control.

However, Gov. Bob McDonnell believes an A-F grading system will allow for more transparency about the performance of Virginia’s schools. McDonnell received support from two prominent Republicans — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — who had implemented such systems in their states.

— Jessica Dahlberg, Capital News Service