In a telephone conference with reporters and educators Friday afternoon, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell was joined by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush to discuss the McDonnell's K-12 education reform agenda and, specifically, the A-F School Grading bill related to schools. If approved, it will take effect July 1, 2013.
Current performance rankings given to schools include phrases such as Fully Accredited, Not Fully Accredited, and Unaccredited, terms understood by the education profession but that may be confusing and not very clear for parents and members of the community.
The Governor's legislation that has passed both the House and Senate proposes replacing those terms with a clearer A-F grading system that is familiar to all. It would grade the schools with an A, B, C, D, or F, the same grades students earn on course work, and bring transparency and accountability to the rating system. The new system would, in turn, provide parents with a very clear, accountable tool to be published on a regular basis. The local community could provide feedback to principals and superintendent, and parents could be more involved in the schools' overall performance and accountability.
A reform that has worked in other states, it was implemented in Florida in 1989 under Jeb Bush, whom McDonnell called a pioneer in school reform whose record was well known across the country.
"We're delighted it's been introduced this year and has advanced to its third reading in the House today and will go to a vote on Monday," McDonnell said. "The Senate will vote on the bill Tuesday," and he added that it was important for citizens to contact their representatives to urge them to vote for the bill.
Bush thanked McDonnell for his focus on education and the comprehensive nature of his reform, and noted that there was no silver bullet to achievement but this initiative, when combined with other initiatives and the work done to create real school choice, results in a good educational outcome. The grading is simpler; everyone understands A, B, C, D, and F, and they know that A is better than F, and C is middle of the road but not as bad as a D, but that D is not as good as A or B.
In Florida, the grades brought greater positive public attention, Bush said, and there was a feeling of pride and accomplishment. Realtors used school grades to build up neighborhoods, and neighborhood meetings turned to discussions of how to help the lower-graded schools in order to bring up the rankings in their district. It became a powerful tool of engagement by people in the community, businesses, and parent groups who understood the better the schools, the better the community.
Historically under-performing schools in Florida got a sense that they could change and began working to improve their grades. Bush noted that it was a wake-up call for some, and the number of schools that improved their ranking increased dramatically. Of all the educational reforms undertaken in his state, he said, grading schools probably was the one that made the most impact.
Virginia principals on the call expressed concern about implementing the system so soon, with one asking if it could be delayed for a year. McDonnell explained the current rankings would be translated into the new A-F grades and said he understood concerns that change be fair and equal. He noted that they had looked at current rankings and there were probably only 40-50 schools that would fall into the D and F categories.
Bush added that 57 percent of Florida's students are minorities, and 56 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches so they had significant educational challenges. By having this accountability system in place, the state has narrowed the achievement gap and made great strides in the 23 years the A-F grading system has been in place.
Admitting there were rough patches along the way, Bush bluntly added, "It was turbulent at times ... I'm not going to sugar coat it," but noted that the proof has been in the advances made in the years since. Students with disabilities ranked number one in the United States in terms of gains.
Bush applauded McDonnell's comprehensive, bold agenda given the success Virginia has after being ranked fourth in education among states across the nation by Education Weekly. The changes are good ones in the globally competitive world we live in, and this one part of that. McDonnell thanked Bush for the template he had put in place and the results they had achieved.
"Working with our fine educational leaders in Virginia, we look forward to the transparency," McDonnell said as he concluded his remarks.