School takeover law ruled unconstitutional

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

A Norfolk Circuit Court judge ruled Tuesday that the controversial state agency established to take control of struggling Virginia schools is unconstitutional.

The Norfolk City School Board filed the lawsuit against the Opportunity Educational Institution (OEI) last year in conjunction with the Virginia School Boards Association after three schools in the district were designated as chronically underperforming. The Alexandria School Board later threw its support behind the suit — Jefferson Houston School also is under threat of state takeover.

In Judge Charles E. Poston’s ruling, he argues that though the state legislature wields broad authority, it cannot usurp powers granted to local governments by the commonwealth’s constitution.

“The constitution, like its predecessor, clearly contemplates local control of public schools subject to the state-wide standards established by the Board of Education and the general law,” Poston wrote. “The OEI legislation would remove this power from local school boards and place it in a state agency in violation of the clear mandate of [the constitution].”

Delegate Rob Krupicka (D-45), who fought to remove funding for OEI in the state budget, called the ruling a welcome rebuke to Richmond’s overreach.
“We always expected that it would be ruled unconstitutional,” Krupicka said. “The way the law was written took all control out of local schools, and the constitution … is clear that education is a primarily locally run enterprise.”

Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) can appeal the ruling. McAuliffe said in a statement that he and his adminstration “are evaluating today’s ruling and will make a decision about next steps soon.”

School board member Chris Lewis said that although he had not yet read the ruling, he was glad to hear the result.

“It was definitely clear in the legislature that many members of the General Assembly have reservations about the way they’ve passed this, looking at how they funded it,” Lewis said, referring to the paltry $150,000 slated for the agency in the latest House budget draft. “We look forward to working with the state Board of Education in a cooperative way, as we have been for years now with our schools that are struggling.”

School board chairwoman Karen Graf said she was happy to hear the court ruled in local school boards’ favor.

“It was stated in the legislation that became law that the OEI would usurp the control of the local school board, so we’re thrilled that the courts are upholding the state’s constitution,” Graf said. “For us it means we will continue our work to make sure each and every student’s needs are addressed. We will continue that at all of our elementary schools and, of course, continue giving strong support to Jefferson Houston.”

Krupicka said the ruling should signal to legislators that it’s time to find a new way for the state to aid underachieving schools.

“What we’ve got to do now is go back to the drawing board to find ways that the state can help districts with struggling schools, and how we can make that a collaborative process,” Krupicka said. “[We] need to take a step back and ask: What are the underlying reasons schools are struggling?

“That means talking about poverty and talking about things that happen outside the classroom, and then talking about what can the state do to provide support to local communities to address those causes that lead to better student outcomes.”

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