School Daze in the Senate

The Senate just spent a full day debating three bills sent down by Governor McDonnell regarding charter and alternative school issues. 

These bills include SB 736 (establishing College Lab schools), SB 737 (relating to charter schools) and SB 738 (relating to on-line curricula).  All three of these bills recognize a reality that education in this century will be markedly different than the desk and blackboard instruction of my youth.

There has been tremendous opposition to these bills.  Some of it is substantive and some is symbolic.  Either way, people have strong opinions about public schools, how they’re funded and how the students are orgnanized.  All the historic divisions of this Commonwealth are invoked.

On the other hand, President Obama himself has endorsed these concepts — especially charter schools — as a means for improving schools, especially in under-performing districts.  His “Race to the Top” program allocates nearly $5 billion to states based upon their participation in innovative programs.  A few days ago, Virginia learned it would not join fifteen other states in receiving those funds.  While our weak “charter school” law was not the definitive reason for this failure, it was a relevant factor.

Here’s how the process played out today …

SB 736 (College Lab Schools) would have permitted our universities to set up “lab schools” in the community in conjunction with their Schools of Education.  Here’s the problem:  our colleges don’t have enough money to educate their own students.   And now they’re going to open an elementary school?   I voted “no.”  Regardless, the bill passed 25-15. 

SB 737 (Charter Schools) actually was mostly symbolic.  The pared-down version of the bill only changed the law in permitting the State Board of Education to play an advisory role in a charter school application.  The final decision still rests with the local School Board.  This bill passed 27-12.  I sit on the Board of a non-profit that is considering applying for a charter school.  Therefore, I recused myself from this vote pursuant to Senate Rule 36.  If I had voted, I would have voted “yes.”

SB 738 (On-line schools) will have the most impact.  This legislation set up a system for the Board of Education to evaluate and regulate on-line curricula and those school divisions which establish on-line programs.   Schools are already moving this way..  This bill is a catch-up.  The bill passed 35-5.  I voted “yes.”

These bills will pass the House and go to the Governor. 

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