Is the Virginia Board of Education Asleep at the Wheel?

Is the Virginia Board of Education Asleep at the Wheel?

What happens when questions arise about the management of our public schools, when parents believe that their local school district isn’t following state regulations and the local school board does nothing?  To which governing body do concerned parents appeal, and what responsibility does the governing body have for ensuring that local school districts follow state regulations?

One would assume that such appeals would be made to the Va Board of Education and Department of Education.  That assumption, unfortunately, would be incorrect.

The Va Board of Education and Department of Education’s mission is to “set education policy and provide leadership that improves the achievement of all students”.  The Board of Education  is the governing and policy-making body for the Virginia public school system while the Department of Education (Va DOE), in conjunction with local school districts, implements and delivers the public school system.

What happens when the Board of Education and Va DOE refuse to act?

The Board of Education has issued a number of regulations governing public schools.  These regulations range from governing teacher licensure, to textbook adoption, and, as many Prince William County residents are now aware, regulations governing how many instructional hours students must receive in an academic year.  These regulations exist to ensure that local school districts have the autonomy to provide the quality and level of instruction their students need while ensuring that the public is informed about what is happening in their district and that certain minimum standards are met.

Take textbook adoption as an example.  Local school districts are permitted to select any textbooks they want for their students provided they follow the appropriate procedure.  Textbooks which have been reviewed and are recommended by the Va DOE can be adopted by local school districts with little effort.  Textbooks which are not recommended by the Va DOE require a few additional steps for the local school district to justify considering a textbook the Va DOE does not recommend.

Another example is the instructional day.  Local school districts have the autonomy to establish a school year that meets the meets of their community, as long as they provide 990 hours of instruction in that school year, excluding time for lunch and recess.

What happens if a school district fails to meet these regulations?

Recently Prince William County Schools fell into hot water because it incorrectly included recess when it calculated the instructional day and ran the risk of failing to provide 990 hours of instruction to district students.  A parent brought this to the district’s attention and, because the deadline to file for a waiver had passed, the district was forced to add an additional 10 minutes to the instructional day.  While the need to add 10 minutes to the instructional day was being discussed, the issue of whether the time between classes counted as instructional time was raised.  PWCS, apparently, counts the time between classes as instructional time.  Fairfax County Public Schools, on the other hand, does not.   So which is it, and who decides?

One would think that the Board of Education might have a word or two to say on this issue.  Nope.  As far as the Board of Education is concerned, as long as the local district certifies that it has met the 990 instructional hours requirement, then the issue is closed.

That same “not my problem” attitude exists with textbook adoption.  PWCS got itself into hot water when it selected an elementary math textbook that was not and is not recommended for use in Grade 5 in Virginia schools by the Va DOE.  Parents claim that Board of Education regulations require local school districts to justify why the district is considering a non-DOE recommended textbook every time they consider a non-DOE recommended textbook by obtaining the approval of the textbook evaluation criteria from the local school board.   PWCS  officials claim that adopting a local regulation delegating and describing staff responsibilities for textbook adoption is sufficient to meet Board of Education regulations, even if that local regulation was adopted years before the district began considering a non-DOE adopted textbook.   So which is it – publicly disclose and justify the decision every time as parents contend, or, point back to a 6 year old regulation delegating responsibilities as PWCS contends?

Again, one would think that the Board of Education might have a word or two to say on this issue, especially in lieu of the millions spent on textbooks each year.  Nope.  As far as the Board of Education and Va DOE are  concerned, as long as the local district certifies that they followed the proper state regulations, then the issue is closed.

In conversations with representatives of the Board of Education and Va DOE, Va DOE officials asserted that they do not have the resources to investigate local school districts for failing to follow state regulations. According to these individuals, if a concern arises which indicates that a local school district may have failed to follow Board of Education regulations then the VA DOE has a conversation with officials in the local school district and asks that their local procedures be adapted to ensure that the problem does not happen again. That is the extent of the Board of Education and Va DOE’s responsibility.

What is the end result?  Absolutely nothing.  Local school districts are free to do as they please as long as they certify to the Va DOE that they followed and / or met Board of Education regulations.  Investigations into failures to follow Board of Education regulations, no matter the consequences, aren’t going to happen.  Kinda makes me wonder why the Board of Education even has regulations, if no one is going to enforce them.

So, if it isn’t the Board of Education or the VA Department of Education, who is watching Virginia public schools?

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