Virginia state officials would take over control of failing

public schools under bills that passed in each house of the General Assembly on Tuesday.

Part of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's education reform package, the measure would create an Opportunity Educational Institution Board to oversee

schools denied accreditation as a result of low standardized test scores and graduation rates.

The state would start taking over schools after the 2013-2014 school year if the final, reconciled measure is approved.

Four schools in the state currently have been denied accreditation, including Jefferson-Houston Elementary in Alexandria, according to Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle.

House votes to ban calculators on tests
The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill Tuesday that would prohibit the use of calculators on the state's Standards of Learning standardized tests for seventh- and eighth-grade students.
The bill, sponsored by Del. David Albo, R-Fairfax, also would require the SOL tests given to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students to contain a number of math problems that are not allowed to be solved using calculators.
"If a teacher can pass a kid through the SOLs without ever teaching him how to do math in his head, you cannot be guaranteed that that kid will ever be able to do it," Albo said.
Though the bill would likely improve students' ability to perform math without a calculator, it could have unintended consequences, said Evan Glazer, principal of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a Fairfax County math-science magnet school ranked No. 2 nationally.
Teachers focused on increasing test scores are going to decrease calculator-based problem solving, he said, even though those problems often require a greater level of thinking.
If a question is written well, "the calculator itself isn't what is solving the problem," he said. "The student is solving the problem."

Alexandria City Public Schools are already working with a partner designated by the state to try to get Jefferson-Houston up to par, according to school system spokeswoman Kelly Alexander, who said she did not know how the new measure would affect the school.

In addition to schools that have already lost their accreditation, the board could take control of any school that has been given warnings for three consecutive years.

"It is unconscionable to stand idly by while another generation of students is forced to attend one of these failing schools," McDonnell said Tuesday after both bills passed. "A child's ZIP code should not dictate whether they receive a quality education in Virginia."

In 2007, Maryland similarly took control of four Baltimore high schools, becoming the first state in the country to take over a school under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

But Del. Robert Krupicka, D-Alexandria, expressed doubts that the new "benevolent bureaucracy" created by the bill would be more successful than previous efforts to revive Jefferson-Houston.

"My city is spending over $20,000 per pupil to help these kids. Only 10 percent of that is coming from the Commonwealth of Virginia, yet we feel here [in Richmond] that we know better," he said.

Krupicka criticized the board created by the bill as lacking accountability on a local level and for not having any obligation to give up supervision of schools it takes over. Though the bill requires the state to decide whether to continue overseeing a school before the end of five years, the state can decide to retain control "for a specified number of additional school years."

Instead of taking schools out of the hands of locals, the state should increase education funding, said Del. Kenneth Plum, D-Fairfax. "If you put the money into the schools, the schools will be successful."

The House passed its bill 66-34, while Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling broke a 20-20 tie to secure Senate passage. Though the chambers' versions are similar, they will need to be approved by the opposite houses and reconciled before going to the governor to sign.