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The Broken Rule

To thrive, regional governor's schools need to escape the instability of local control.

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In an excruciatingly tough budget year, Gov. Bob McDonnell faces the prospect of being the governor who loses two of Virginia's elite governor's schools. Should this occur, it would represent a grave setback for the McDonnell's school-choice agenda.

The problem begins with Chesterfield County. In attempting to balance its own books, Chesterfield's School Board is considering the option of reducing its funding or dropping participation altogether in the Maggie Walker and Appomattox regional governor's schools. Because of Chesterfield's size and wealth, its participation is vital to Maggie Walker in Richmond — and indispensable to Appomattox in Petersburg.

In all probability, the two schools — which have influential and vocal supporters — will find the political means to survive in the short term. Maggie Walker — with Northern Virginia's Thomas Jefferson — is one of Virginia's flagship secondary schools. Its existence plays an important role in the revitalization of Richmond and the region.  

While newer and less well-known, Appomattox plays a similar role in the Tri-Cities. Originally established as a lifeboat school to provide an attractive opportunity for outstanding students from Petersburg's troubled school system, Appomattox is crucial to that city's hopes for economic revival.

Moreover, both schools hold the key to important educational reforms favored by the Obama administration as well as Virginia's new governor. Charter schools by another name, they offer a highly successful model of public-school choice.

They're also on the cutting edge of educational reform. Small high schools providing a strong curricular focus and serving only 400 or 500 students have emerged from the research as a model for educational excellence, and are endorsed by such forward-looking organizations as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The governor's schools are, thus, not only excellent in themselves. They represent a model — small, focused, selective, regional — upon which a variety of future schools could be based. For some years, I've been among those advocating a regional Commonwealth School — a military-style school for highly qualified young people interested in careers in law enforcement, public safety and the military.

Others have proposed a regional school for children gifted in math, science and technology, and a high school for students interested in nursing and medical technology, on a hospital campus and offering regular hands-on experience to future healers.

The primary obstacle to progress on this front rests with the clumsy and excessively contingent process by which regional schools are created and maintained — a process that leaves these schools at the mercy of the shifting political and fiscal fortunes of participating localities.

It's time our governor's schools, and future regional schools of excellence, are established on a firmer foundation.

I can claim some degree of personal experience. In 1991, as a doctoral student in educational leadership at the University of Virginia, I was one of two finalists interviewed to become the first director of what is now the Maggie Walker Governor's School. My strongest recollection of that interview was that it was held in late May or early June — less than three months before the new school was to open — and that there was no director, no curriculum and no faculty.

At the interview, I expressed my frank concern that the board, which consisted of some dozen division superintendents, had waited too late to select a director. I argued for an additional planning year, the usual practice within most school divisions. The board rejected my advice and chose another candidate, but I kept in touch enough to know that the future Maggie Walker got off to a very rough start before achieving its current status.

Some years later, I joined the faculty at Appomattox in the second year of its existence — a year of considerable turmoil, ending with the replacement of the original administrative team. Again, the school survived — and eventually has thrived — but it nearly foundered at the outset.

In truth, no one should be surprised that governor's schools often get off to rocky starts. They're generally created despite considerable reluctance on the part of local school authorities, which aren't eager to lose outstanding students or the revenues that go with them. For financial reasons, governor's schools often open without the extensive planning that goes into opening an ordinary high school.

Moreover, there's an odd pattern to the oversight of governor's schools. Because they're initially created by committees of superintendents, there tends to be a good deal of micromanagement and delay at the outset. Once a school is in existence, oversight routinely passes to a board consisting of school board members from the participating districts — elected officials with more pressing priorities than a regional school serving few of their constituents. Oversight then passes from excessive to perfunctory.

All these considerations pale, however, next to the problem that's recently manifested itself. Chesterfield's budget difficulties have brought into clear focus that governor's schools exist at the whim of the larger participating divisions — an entirely unsatisfactory situation.

What's needed is a long-term fix. Governor's schools — and future selective, regional schools with a clear curricular or career focus — represent the cutting edge in education. But to thrive they need to escape the instability resulting from local control.

Virginia's Board of Education has the power to create school divisions regardless of local boundaries. The McDonnell administration should seek the creation of special regional school boards with the specific and limited charge of overseeing existing governor's schools — and creating new small, selective, highly focused regional secondary schools where they are warranted.

This reform should be accompanied by legislation assuring that school funds accompany each student admitted to such schools on a per capita basis, without the necessity of approval by local school divisions.

Regional cooperation in education is a wonderful idea, but the way to achieve it lies in the creation of competent regional educational bodies. The current approach, relying on the cooperation of local school boards, leaves too much to chance. S

'Rick Gray served as secretary of the commonwealth from 1978 to 1981. He also taught history at Midlothian High School, the Appomattox Regional Governor's School, and writes a column for the Village News in Chester.

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