Local schools can't win if McDonnell doesn't play

 The school year kicked off August 25 for children in Charlottesville and Albemarle’s public schools, and while students and teachers display the usual pep and verve, they could have had a lot more to cheer for.

Ron Price, chair of the Albemarle County School Board, says Governor McDonnell’s decision not to pursue Race to the Top funds “goes right against” concerns over Virginia’s economic vitality.

Educators in Maryland, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and seven other states celebrated last week when they “won” Race to the Top, the $4.3 billion federal education competition. Each of those school systems will get hundreds of millions of federal grant dollars.

Virginia, meanwhile, had already dropped out of the race. This summer, Governor Bob McDonnell dashed any hope that a flood—or even a trickle—of new federal money could be on its way when he pulled Virginia out of this round of competition.

Albemarle School Board Chairman Ron Price laments the decision. “The governor and others talk about the economic vitality of the state. When you do something like this, it goes right against those words,” says Price. “You’re not going to attract the high tech industries into the Commonwealth of Virginia without having a quality education system.”

The recession led politicians to cut both state and local funding for schools, and Albemarle in particular has taken its lumps, cutting 40 staff positions. The county schools’ budget fell $6 million from the previous year to $143 million. That was supposed to have been cushioned by $4.5 million in federal stimulus funds, but this year, the state decided to keep that money rather than pass it along to local schools, as it had done last year. County supervisors opted not to offset the decline in county real estate assessments with an increased property tax rate, which lowered local school funding. The shortfalls helped incite a winter spat with Charlottesville over revenue sharing money.

Virginia entered the first round of the federal competition along with 40 other divisions. But despite lobbying from McDonnell and others, it placed a paltry 31st. Only Delaware and Tennessee received first round funding, of $100 million and $500 million, respectively.

As deadlines approached for the second round, McDonnell pulled out. The reason? He said Virginia’s curriculum standards are too high. The federal scoring system rewards states that adopt recently released, nationally approved “common core standards.” McDonnell said he couldn’t ditch Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOLs).

“We can’t go back,” said McDonnell. “We’ve been working on this for 15 years. Our standards are much superior.”

Price questions whether that’s the case, and an analysis by The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank in D.C., backs him up. It concluded that Virginia’s English standards were roughly equivalent, but rated the Commonwealth’s math standards a C versus an A for the common core standards.

Moreover, Virginia scored 325 of 500 points on the first round—and only 30 of those points lost were attributable to common curriculum standards. The Commonwealth lost significant points for not sufficiently linking teacher/principal evaluations with student achievement, and for not distributing quality teachers and principals equally throughout the education system.

“I was disappointed that we were not able to compete,” says Albemarle Superintendent Pam Moran. “On the other hand, I understand why the state department in Richmond felt like it would be perhaps not a good use of their time” knowing Virginia would not adopt the common standards word-for-word.

Leah Puryear, chairman of the Charlottesville School Board, also understands the governor’s decision, pointing out that the funding, if Charlottesville received any at all, would have been heavily restricted. Charlottesville schools took a $2 million budget reduction this year.

Virginia had applied for $350 million. It’s unclear how much money local schools would have received had Virginia “won” Race to the Top. Much of the money was slated for low-performing and charter schools. Albemarle County is home to two of Virginia’s four charter schools.

“I think everybody realizes that money’s short in a lot of areas, not just education,” says Moran, “and that we certainly would like that we’re competitive anytime there is money that’s going to be available for us at the federal level.”

Moran looks on the bright side. “There may be a third round,” she says. “It’s possible we might be back in the game.”

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