Virginians Ponder Choice as Next Stage in School Reform

Published August 1, 2002

RICHMOND—The federal No Child Left Behind Act will reinforce a “quiet revolution” in how qualified teachers are being recruited to K-12 classrooms, the Director of Teacher Quality and Public School Choice for the U.S. Department of Education told a Lexington Institute forum on school reform here recently.

Speaking at the Virginia General Assembly, Dr. Cheri Yecke, who was Virginia’s Secretary of Education before assuming the teacher quality position in the Bush administration, said the new education law represents a “totally new direction in federal policy” following the Goals 2000 era.

“No longer is it a top down, strings attached, ‘Do it our way, or else,’ approach,” she said.

Under the new law, states may take half of the dollars otherwise earmarked for teacher quality, technology, innovative programs, or safe and drug-free schools and transfer those funds into “any one of those programs where they want to provide the focus.” Or they can let all the money go into Title I, which seeks to close the achievement gap for children from low-income homes. The choice is up to education officials in each individual state.

How Accountability Worked in Virginia

States despairing over how they will successfully implement the academic standards and testing required by No Child Left Behind should be buoyed by Virginia’s experience, said Yecke, who as a member of the Virginia Board of Education helped develop the state’s grade-by-grade Standards of Learning (SOL) and the tests to enforce them.

She cited as an example Norfolk’s high-poverty Tidewater Park Elementary, where only 6 percent of children passed English, 3 percent history, and 0 percent science in 1998, the first year the tests were given. Now passing rates in core subjects are in the 70 to 90 percent range.

Teachers took the low scores as a “wake-up call,” Yecke said, and “with no additional resources except their compassion” organized the entire school to focus on remedial action after school and even on Saturdays.

Statewide, the share of schools accredited but with a warning has fallen to less than 10 percent, reversing the situation the first year, when only 7 percent of schools met the SOL standard.

No Child Left Behind provisions focused on rescuing children from chronically failing schools will start kicking in as early as this fall. Families stuck with such schools will be able to use their share of federal subsidies to purchase tutorial help from providers that may include private schools, nonprofit or for-profit organizations, or faith-based-groups, Yecke said.

Improving Teacher Quality

Yecke said the new law also permits flexibility within programs such as teacher quality. Under the 1994 version of federal education law, the Eisenhower Professional Development Program laid down prescriptive requirements for states and localities: requiring, for example, that all funds be used for math and science teaching.

By contrast, No Child Left Behind permits states to spend their allotted funds for whatever initiatives they think most urgent, whether that means securing mentors for new teachers, paying bonuses, providing supplemental pay for teaching in targeted schools or difficult-to-fill fields, or innovative approaches to teaching.

“This is more of a market-based approach than the step-salary approach,” Yecke noted.

Under the new law, only three basic requirements now exist for new teachers: that they be licensed by the state, hold at least a bachelor’s degree, and demonstrate competence according to each state’s criteria. This is a significant change from the recent past, when state bureaucrats checked to see if would-be teachers had completed the many education courses they were required to take—a kind of “bean-counting” approach to certification.

Forty-five of the 50 states now have alternative routes to teaching that bypass the schools of education to one degree or another.

In each of the past three years, U.S. schools have hired roughly 75,000 new teachers, 25,000 of whom were certified through alternative routes. Increasingly, school districts “are not going through education schools. This is a very quiet revolution that is going on almost unnoticed,” Yecke said.

Broader Concept of Public Education

Two first-term members of the Virginia House of Delegates, and one former House member who has long been a school choice leader, advocated a more aggressive use of parental choice to take Virginia to the next stage of school reform.

While emphasizing he supports public education, Delegate Scott Lingamfelter said “we need a new vision, one that looks at education as a basket of alternatives: public education, private school, home school. It’s time to cut the bickering and start the ‘wickering.'”

Lingamfelter, from Northern Virginia, and Delegate Bill Janis, from the Richmond area, said they would reintroduce a bill to provide state income tax credits for contributions to organizations awarding private scholarships to needy students.

“This is a clear public policy winner,” said Lingamfelter. “It saves dollars for the state on the one hand while leveraging competition on the other.”

The two delegates also plan to sponsor a bill in the 2003 General Assembly to provide performance bonuses for teachers who help their children make significant gains in achievement.

The education tax credit is expected to resemble closely the proposal Republican Jay Katzen championed as a member of the House of Delegates before narrowly losing a race for Lieutenant Governor last fall. Katzen, who now is running for a congressional seat from Southwest Virginia, commented, “the most important good idea I’ve been identified with is school choice.”

Providing a state tax credit up to $500 for donations to tuition organizations that would award scholarships up to $3,100 for needy students would help families have a choice in education while providing “a windfall” to localities by relieving them of the costs of schooling significant numbers of their residents, argued Katzen.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is [email protected].