Virginia Governor Proposes School Choice, Reforms

Published January 11, 2012

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has joined the growing ranks of governors supporting school choice by proposing in his 2012 legislative agenda tax credit scholarships, ending tenure, stronger charter school laws, requiring an online class of high school students, and streamlining virtual school regulations.

“We have crafted this with one sole focus: what’s in the best interests of the young people of this state,” McDonnell said.

Having balanced the state’s precarious budget and with Republicans gaining control over both houses of the state legislature in 2010, McDonnell had the political traction to tackle education, said Don Soifer, executive vice president of the Lexington Institute.

Choices for Low-Income Families
The governor’s proposal would provide tax credits to companies that contribute to scholarship funds for low-income students to attend private schools of their parents’ choice.

“One of the few things you can change in a kid’s life is his school,” said George McVey, president of the Virginia Council for Private Education. “If he was not being successful in one school, he might be in another place. A low-income person doesn’t have that option.”

Virginia’s constitution limits school choice options by forbidding spending state funds on religious institutions. States with similar constitutional provisions, such as Arizona, have implemented education tax credits to encourage school choice, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 2002.

Potential Impediments
Three historical factors will influence debates over the plan, Soifer said: Virginia’s historically strong content standards have been diluted, resistance to desegregation, and the deep influence on both sides of the aisle by the state’s largest teacher union, the Virginia Education Association.

“All of that has contributed to a slowing of market-based school reforms in Virginia,” Soifer said, and the debate will require McDonnell to spend significant political capital. The need for reform is evident in falling National Assessment of Educational Progress scores and large minority gaps in test scores and graduation rates, he said. 

“At the end of the day, the relative success and the effectiveness of the proposals will have a lot to do with the details,” Soifer said.


Image from Gov. McDonnell’s office.