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A (Seemingly) Pleasant Surprise from Virginia's Department of Education

A Review of the Northern Virginia VDOE Accountability Listening Session

I don’t know if any of you have attended any of the VDOE listening sessions on accountability changes around the state, but Marianne Burke and I drove 45 minutes out to the Hylton Center on the GMU Science and Tech campus in Manassas to participate in one on Wednesday, December 5th.

We had read the VDOE August 2023 announcement (Item F) which erroneously compared NAEP and SOL results (again), and thought that it was a public input session similar to the History SOL sessions earlier this year, so each of us took time to prepare remarks.

Marianne and I were both prepared to fight for our schools, particularly after Youngkin’s anti-transgender “Model Policies” and other efforts to harm our public schools. Marianne planned to publicly remind VDOE (yet again) that NAEP and SOL scores are not comparable–see her letter to VDOE below–while I was going to demand accountability from the VDOE to Virginia parents, teachers, and students.

Yet, we were woefully unprepared for what we found, because this was (seemingly) not another farcical public input opportunity by Youngkin’s appointees to undermine the public will of Virginians. This was a completely different experience.

Unfortunately, the purpose of the meeting was unclear and/or misrepresented by the public notice from VDOE, which focused on revising accreditation and adding accountability measures. The majority of the public is unaware of current accountability measures and how schools are accredited, so few parents would have the background to participate or follow the conversation. So neither of our speeches were necessary, much less appropriate for this venue.

Fortunately, under Dr. Lisa Coons, the newly appointed Superintendent of Instruction for the Youngkin Administration, this VDOE session was a completely different experience than the cramped, rushed, check-the-box History SOL listening sessions earlier this year. It truly was an interactive listening session where Dr. Coons, staff, consultants, and a parent representative presented plans, asked for input, and held an informed and open discussion. It didn’t feel like they were merely checking off the boxes to satisfy public input requirements. Instead, they seemed to understand and value the input of education professionals, parents, superintendents, and principals in the room.

In summary, VDOE is proposing to change the accreditation system to make it more transparent to parents, reduce the number of assessments in a year, provide actionable data to stakeholders, and rely more heavily on the SOLs, which she said VDOE intends to overhaul. Dr. Coons stated that these eight listening sessions are merely the middle of a process to update Virginia’s public school accreditation system, a process that began in 2022 and expects to be completed in 2025. The public can also provide online input here:

Both Marianne and I were pleasantly surprised by Dr. Coons’ gracious greeting, level of knowledge, and interest in learning new things. It was so refreshing after nearly two years of culture wars, scandals, and disingenuous solicitation of parental involvement by her predecessor, Jillian Balow, and our Governor. It is important to note that Balow receives full salary and benefits for a year following her March 2023 resignation, paid by Virginia taxpayers despite her poor performance, which is something to note next time school districts are accused of wasting money. According to Virginia Dogwood Balow is “slated to receive almost $300,000 of taxpayer money over the coming year despite having no responsibilities or obligations to the commonwealth; further, the severance agreement guaranteeing this money allows her to take other paying jobs.”

Nevertheless, I wonder: What is the true purpose of revamping Virginia’s public school system accountability and accreditation? In my experience, accountability is often applied only to public schools, whose processes, personnel, and performance is already transparent and excessively scrutinized while private and charter schools get a pass on any measurement of accountability–don’t even get me started on the lack of metrics on homeschooling.

Efforts to make accountability measures “more transparent” to parents and VDOE make me question the purpose: is it to ensure that all families have access to the best schools by providing funds and other resources to schools whose metrics are less satisfactory? Or, is “transparency” merely a trojan horse for voucher efforts that suck more money from our public schools and taxpayers for unaccountable private institutions, charter schools, and homeschooling efforts? Only time will tell.



Letter to Dr. Lisa Coons
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