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When the attorney general says he can’t stand up for the governor’s education reform, he’s on solid legal ground.
Thursday, September 5, 2013
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli distanced himself more from a scandal-plagued Gov. Bob McDonnell with a letter advising him to look elsewhere for help defending against an anticipated legal challenge to a new law allowing state control of failing local schools.
The timing of the letter leaves Cuccinelli, embroiled in a heated gubernatorial campaign, open to speculation about possible political motives. All of that aside, the attorney general is right.
“Given an analysis of the constitutional issues involved,” he wrote, “my office cannot defend this lawsuit.” For the very good reason that it is unconstitutional.
Virginia’s constitution provides for public schools under the supervision of local school districts.
McDonnell himself recognized the problem that presented to his plan to create a statewide school division to take over schools that fail to win full accreditation four years in a row. Along with that legislation, he asked the General Assembly for a companion bill to get the ball rolling on a constitutional amendment to forestall possible legal challenges.
Lawmakers passed the bill to create the Opportunity Educational Institution to govern seized schools. But the constitutional amendment died in the Senate. The Virginia School Boards Association and the Norfolk school board are preparing to file suit.
Their objection that the state has overreached its authority is not even the law’s worst flaw, though.
Worse, in doing so, the state provides no new money to pay for presumed educational reforms — other than a pittance to create a new bureaucracy, as yet unstaffed, to direct a newly created state “school division.”
Rather, the governor has set the division up to take the public schools’ regular, which is to say insufficient, level of state funding, and to make local districts continue their support of seized schools beyond the local share set in the state’s own funding formula.
This is tacit acknowledgement that the formula sets the numbers artificially low, allowing Virginia to minimize its contribution. Every one of Virginia’s localities voluntarily supplements its required level of funding.
This ill-considered law will hand the state division control of schools that fail to win accreditation, and give it the option of taking over schools that fail to reach academic benchmarks three years in a row — one year shy of losing accreditation.
The state division will get local taxpayers’ dollars in an amount mandated by the state. If and when schools are accredited, the state can return control to local boards, or not.
Whether or not this law survives a legal challenge, the lawmakers need to think again about how to turn around failing schools.
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