RICHMOND, Va. - Two major components of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's education reform agenda won a Senate committee's endorsement Thursday on the narrowest of party-line votes.
The Education and Health Committee voted 8-7 to send to the Senate floor legislation directing the state Board of Education to implement a system for grading public schools on an A to F scale. By the same vote, the panel approved and sent to the Finance Committee a bill allowing the state to take over schools that repeatedly fail to meet accreditation standards.
Similar versions of those two measures also have been sent to the House of Delegates floor. Both chambers will vote on the bills by Tuesday, the deadline for each chamber to act on its own bills.
Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, said the public school grading bill will make it easier for the public to understand how schools stack up and help identify schools that need help. Representatives of school boards, administrators and teachers spoke against the bill.
"Unfortunately, what I hear is `Grade the kids, don't grade us,'" Stanley said in response to the critics.
Meg Gruber, president of the Virginia Education Association, said the public already gets "a very detailed report card" that rates schools as fully accredited, accredited with warning or not accredited. Labeling schools with a single letter grade would stigmatize those that struggle, she said.
"I think this is a quick rush to fix a problem that doesn't exist," she said.
One of the Republicans who voted for the bill also had reservations.
"If we're telling little Johnny, `You're going to an F school, just do your best,' I'm a little uneasy," said Del. Richard Black of Loudoun County.
Former state Secretary of Education Jim Dyke, who co-chaired a McDonnell education summit, said an easily understood grading system is essential to generating parental and community support for improving public schools.
Under Stanley's bill, fully accredited schools that reach certain benchmarks would get an A while those that achieve slightly lower benchmarks would get a B. Schools that are "accredited with warning" for failing to meet standards in one or more subject areas would get a C or a D. Schools that are denied accreditation would get a failing grade. The Board of Education would have two years to develop and add a "student growth" component to the grading system.
Dyke also supported legislation co-sponsored by Sens. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, and Kenneth Alexander, D-Norfolk, to create an Opportunity Educational Institution to take over failing schools. An 11-member board would oversee efforts to restore the schools to full accreditation, then return them to control of the local school division.
"We've already lost generations of students because we haven't addressed the problem," said Dyke, who added that six schools currently would be subject to takeover under the legislation.
Pat Lacy of the Virginia School Boards Association complained that the board created by the bill would have virtually unlimited power. He and Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, also said they believe taking control of public schools away from localities is unconstitutional.
Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, said a few schools continue to fail and "we don't know how to fix it. We don't have another solution."
On another 8-7 party-line vote, the committee killed legislation backed by Democrats to provide in-state college tuition rates to the children of illegal immigrants who live in Virginia and have paid taxes in the state for three years. Opponents complained that those children could take slots away from citizens, but supporters of the bill said it only provides in-state tuition _ not a guarantee of acceptance _ for children who had no say in being brought to this country.
By voice vote, the panel also endorsed a bill requiring teachers to receiving training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation as a condition of licensure. Students eventually would also be required to undergo training before graduating. The bill was prompted by the death of a Stafford County 12-year-old who collapsed on a middle school track and did not receive CPR for about 10 minutes.
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