The Virginia General Assembly adjourned from their 2012 Regular Session on March 10. Over the past several weeks, I was able to talk with four of the Northern Virginia legislators who voted on the 2,800 bills that were intoduced. In particular, I focused my questions on bills that addressed education.
One such bill was the reform of teacher continuing contracts, or tenure, which was part of Republican Governor Bob McDonnell’s education policy initiative for 2012.
“The governor’s staff testified that they needed this bill because there are bad teachers in the state who can’t be fired easily under the current system,” Delegate Mark Keam (D) from the 35th District said. “While I agree that we should remove bad teachers, I asked the administration, is this bill really the only solution?”
Keam, who worked on the House Teacher and Administrative Action Sub-committee chaired by Delegate Jim LeMunyon (R), closely reviewed the bill, which gave more power to public school administrators to remove poorly-performing teachers.
“From my standpoint, Northern Virginia is already doing this right,” LeMunyon from District 67 said. “The bill that failed said that every teacher would have to be formally evaluated every three years. This is already happening in Northern Virginia but is not standardized throughout the rest of the state.”
Supporters of the bill said it would improve the education system while its opponents asserted it would discourage people from teaching in Virginia because of the inherent lack of job security.
“The governor’s bill, as originally drafted, was like using a sledgehammer on a problem that needs a scalpel. It would put all teachers, good and bad, at risk of being fired.” Keam said.
The bill passed the House but died in the Senate on March 8. There is a possibility the governor would bring it up again next year, but LeMunyon has confidence that any new legislation will treat teachers fairly.
“I don’t know if the governor will push this legislation again next year, but if he chooses to, I know he’ll continue to work with teachers, parents, school administrators and elected officials to improve the legislation even more – to ensure accountability but also to honor our hard working teachers,” he said.
While the vote on the teacher contract reform bill was mostly split down party lines, another bill, the proposed law that would repeal what has come to be known as the Kings Dominion Law, co-sponsored by both Keam and LeMunyon, was strongly supported and opposed on both sides of the aisle.
“This wasn’t a partisan issue,” Delegate Tim Hugo (R) from the 40th House District said. “The school start date is a regional debate. Tourism driven regions don’t want to see schools starting before Labor Day because of the potential lost revenue.”
The bill, that would allow local school boards to set the beginning of the school year before Labor Day, has traditionally been opposed by the tourism industry and has more of a regional divide of opinion. But that doesn’t mean things can’t change.
“I grew up in Virginia Beach and have always voted to preserve the Kings Dominion Law, except for this year. I changed my vote,” Hugo said.
Hugo joined the majority of his fellow Northern Virginians in voting for this new bill that would especially help students preparing for nationally standardized tests.
“A student in North Carolina who begins school three weeks earlier than a Virginia student has three extra weeks to prepare for the national AP tests given to all students at the same time in May. That North Carolina student also doesn’t have three weeks of unproductive down time at the end of the year like our students currently do,” Keam said, to explain his support for the bill.
Senator Dave Marsden (D) from the 37th Senate District, who introduced a similar bill to the Senate on behalf of the governor, agrees that the full year should be utilized for learning, as is best decided by local school boards.
“We would be better served to have the school boards make this decision because they are only concerned with the welfare of their students and not the local business interests,” he said.
The bill passed the House with a hefty margin and was narrowly defeated in committee in the Senate. This issue is a perennial favorite for the General Assembly, and there is little doubt it will be back next session. With its gaining popularity and the governor’s support for the first time this year, the repeal of the Kings Dominion Law may not be too far off.
The final issue that could have particularly influenced the lives of new drivers would have been the bill introduced to make texting behind the wheel a primary offence for drivers under 18.
The bill passed the Senate but was left in the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee at the end of the session because of the House’s caution in passing bills that target certain technology and age groups.
After dealing with all of these issues, the General Assembly finished their Regular Session without a budget and has been in Special Session to have a plan to fund the Commonwealth for the next two years since March 10. On Monday, the Senate put forth their $85 billion budget plan, which was voted down in the House on Tuesday. The bill is now in a conference committee but looks like it will be passed soon.
“I think we will have a budget within the next few days,” LeMunyon said. “The delay is starting to effect planning on the local level.”
One of the main dividing issues between the conservative House budget, which was killed by the Senate at the end of the Regular Session, and the more moderate Senate plan is funding for education.
The Senate plan includes $42 million for “cost of competing” funds for Northern Virginia schools, compared to the House proposal of $24 million. This difference in funding shows the different party goals when it comes to education policy.
“I think there is agreement on both sides of the aisle that good education is key for the success of our state,” Keam said. “However, I believe that Democrats generally want to focus on fixing problems with the public schools we have now, while the Republicans generally are looking at other options beyond traditional public schools like home-schooling, virtual, charter and private schools.”
So what can one conclude about the direction of Virginia schools from the General Assembly session this year? Not much, if we’re looking at bills that passed. But lawmakers were able to use this session to address some of the paramount issues that face Virginia teenagers and the educational system, and maybe will have more success next year.