Ken Plum: Playing by the rules

We teach our children that they have to play by the rules, but sometimes we as adults find ways to bend the rules when it suits our purpose. When governments change their own rules for their convenience, a cynicism sets in as to how serious we were about the rules in the first place. Two examples from Virginia government come to mind.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB), public schools are required to demonstrate adequate yearly progress of student achievement in order for schools to be accredited. The rule set by NCLB was not an easy one to meet demonstrating that such a standard was needed. Under the old system of evaluating schools, children were being lost in statistics and were being left behind. Under NCLB, more schools were failing to attain accreditation than the educational or political systems were willing to acknowledge or to justify.   

A component of the failure of schools to attain adequate yearly progress was the wide differences among ethnic and racial groups. Asians often topped the standards, beating out their white counterparts. Hispanics and blacks lagged behind all other groups in their levels of achievement. Many strategies have been tried and many resources expended to try to close the achievement gap but with limited success.

Virginia and many other states have in recent years resorted to a different tactic to close the achievement gap: change the rules. Virginia was recently granted an exception for which it applied to NCLB allowing it to set different standards for different minority groups. Simply stated under the new standards in Virginia we will expect more from Asian students and less from Hispanic and black students than we do for white students.

The NAACP and other groups have rightly raised objections to the new variable standards. In education, you get what you expect. Expect less of students, and they will not do well. Within all groups of students there are some individuals who do well. Rather than recognize individual differences, the new system tracks students in a way that I do not believe complies with the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause.

One of the explanations for the differences among student achievement relates to the programs and services to which they have been exposed. In recent years as monies have become scarcer, all government programs including schools have been reducing programs and services. Too often the school programs that get cut are those for the students who need them most. How does the Virginia General Assembly reduce funding for schools when the state constitution requires it to fund them?

You guessed it. The Assembly changes the rules. Over the last several years the state Standards of Quality (SOQ) by which schools are funded have been reduced. We “fully” fund the SOQs; we simply do not explain that the SOQs have been reduced.

Our children and our future are cheated when we do not play by the rules. We need to return in Virginia to expecting high attainment for all children and to providing funding to meet that goal.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.


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