McAuliffe talks of SOL reform with Roanoke County teachers

September 5, 2013 / David Ress / Roanoke Times

Working the crowd at most campaign stops means lots of handshaking — but for Terry McAuliffe and the fourth-grade lunch crowd Wednesday at Green Valley Elementary School, it meant fist bumps, too.

“I’m going to make sure you get a good education,” the Democratic candidate for governor told one girl.

“Maybe I’ll be president!” the boy sitting across from her called out. “Maybe you will,” McAuliffe replied.

Then, the fist bump.

On the second day of a statewide campaign push on education, McAuliffe stopped by the Roanoke County school to say he favors putting more money into Virginia’s public schools. But he ended up learning something, too.

Teachers at the school, joined by county testing supervisor Ben Williams, were upset by an obscure addition to the state’s manual for assessing schools that looks as if it is going to give the award-winning Green Valley a black mark.

“That’s something I’m going to fix,” McAuliffe replied. “A great school like this shouldn’t be stigmatized if a score is down 1 percent.”

The black mark looks possible because still-to-be-released test data could show that even though Green Valley is meeting academic performance targets set by the state, its actual results on some may have slipped from the year before, Williams said.

Under what school officials call the “no backslide” standard and state education officials call the “maintain higher expectations” standard, that means the school could be designated as not meeting federal accountability standards. The rule comes from state government, not Washington, and was meant to keep the pressure on high-performing schools like Green Valley.

The state successfully argued to Washington that the latter’s No Child Left Behind Act standards were imposing unrealistic expectations. That gave county school officials hope that academic targets set by the state would free them to focus more on students’ critical thinking skills instead of just passing tests.

And at Green Valley, McAuliffe heard an earful about Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests, too.

Parent Laura Bowman said test-taking and preparing for test-taking consumed 45 days or more of the school year, while third-grade teacher Amy Brielle said the focus on learning what’s on the test narrows the scope of what students learn.

McAuliffe said the tests badly need reform — a view he shares with his Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli.

But the two differ sharply on school choice — giving parents financial help to send children to private schools.

Cuccinelli has said he wanted to repeal a portion of the state Constitution, one of the so-called “Blaine Amendments” that originally date to the late 19th century, which says state funds can only be appropriated to public schools. McAuliffe said ending that ban would drain money from public schools.

McAuliffe said Cuccinelli’s proposed cuts to personal and business income taxes would cost the state $1.4 billion a year in revenue, which would translate to a $525 million cut in state aid to education.

McAuliffe said he’d boost spending on schools by agreeing to expand Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled. The federal funds that come with an expansion would allow the state to free up $500 million now spent on health care, which McAuliffe said he would redirect to education.

“As Ken has made abundantly clear, his tax cut proposal will not touch education, period,” spokeswoman Anna Nix said. “Repealing the Blaine Amendment would not take any money from public schools but only level the playing field and offer K-12 students the same opportunities we offer college students through the Tuition Assistance Grant program.”

She said McAuliffe’s proposed redirection of Medicaid savings “would mean he’s banking our children’s education on a federal government program that has already broken multiple funding promises and missed numerous deadlines.”