Local delegates consider school changes
PETERSBURG, Jan 06, 2013 (The Progress-Index - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Gov. Bob McDonnell's K-12 additional Education Reform Agenda package is likely to see bipartisan support in the coming session of the General Assembly, which starts on Wednesday, legislator say.
"Democrats are not aboard with every piece, but they will support a lot of it," said House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, R-66th. "We want it to be bipartisan."
Del. Rosalyn Dance, D-63rd, said that she has carried the governor's previous education initiatives in the past and plans to continue doing so. "When he laid out his budget, I was impressed with what he was offering," Dance said. "[Democrats] might want to see some amendments here and there, but education is something that both sides of the aisle are in agreement with," Dance said.
McDonnell rolled out his additional initiatives for improving K-12 education on Wednesday in front of teachers, educators, legislators, students and parents at Goochland Middle School.
"Virginia is blessed with some of the best schools and educators in the nation, but we have to compete globally," McDonnell said. "We must embrace a culture of innovation and accountability by adopting proven reforms, reducing red tape for educators, supporting the highest degree of professionalism in the classroom, and giving our teachers and students the tools necessary to achieve success in our schools," he said.
"School divisions must also have the flexibility to do what is in the best interest of the child because all students deserve innovation in their classrooms," McDonnell added.
Phase 2 of the governor's "All Students" plan includes bringing Teach for America to the commonwealth, enhancements to school report cards to provide parents and educators with clearer measurers, reductions in red tape for local school divisions, supporting teacher innovation and staffing, and guaranteed long-term support for students to achieve key learning milestones in reading and mathematics to strengthen their education.
Cox, who co-chaired the governor's most recent K-12 Summit, said that the latest initiative is the biggest K-12 package of the past 20 years and will drive much of the coming General Assembly session in the form of several bills. "We could do one bill or five or seven," Cox said in an interview with The Progress-Index. "But the key is, we want this to remain a package."
McDonnell also proposed a 2 percent pay raise for teachers. "I really pushed for that," he said. "The 2 percent is not what we need, but it's a start. I think it's more appreciated in a very tough economy," Cox said.
After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., that left 20 children and six adults dead, McDonnell also leveled the debate for school safety, including talks of possibly arming teachers.
But Cox -- a retired teacher -- said that this is unlikely to happen in Virginia. "I'm only interested in what's possible politically," Cox said. "That's why I am much more intrigued with the model of retired police officers. They have the training and we'd have a much better chance of getting this through. That's the most realistic solution," he said.
Dance said that she also opposed the idea to arm teachers. "Teachers go to school in order to teach, They don't go in order to learn how to be in law enforcement or public safety. That's a skill in itself," she said. "I'm more inclined to have school resource officers versus educators be charged with being public safety officers and put them into harm's way," Dance said.
Currently, 80 percent of high and middle schools in the commonwealth participate in the School Resource Officers program. But only 20 percent of elementary schools are part of the program. "The biggest school safety problem is generally not what we had in Newtown," Cox said. "Generally, what we have is a gang fight spilling over into the school, which doesn't really happen in elementary schools," he said.
Expanding the school resource officer program to all elementary schools is a costly proposition. Cox believes that hiring retired police officers would cut the cost. "They already have their benefits, and they would play a straight security role," he said. "We will put some funding into the budget for the [already existing] school resource officer model, because most violence occurs at high and middle schools. That's just a reality," Cox said.
But Cox said that even a school resource officer cannot guarantee absolute safety. "It is impossible to make schools 100 percent safe. "One solution -- gun control or arming teachers -- is not going to solve the problem," he said.
Cox also said that more gun control would diminish the risk of violent acts in Virginia's schools. "If I had to list five or six things that would have the most effect [on violence], gun control wouldn't be one of them," Cox said. "You got like 300 million guns in the United States. If you have an assault weapons ban and you look at the states and how this ban is used, most weapons wouldn't be included in that ban. Unless you're going to confiscate what's there, but I am totally opposed to that," he said.
Dance predicts numerous gun control bills from Democratic legislators in the coming months, including legislation to close the so-called gun show loophole and to re-instate the "one-gun-per-month" law. "I can't imagine that we won't have some bills of that nature," said Dance, who added that she had no plans to introduce such bills herself.
Dance and Cox agree that budget talks will play a dominant role in the next session. As lawmakers in Washington put discussions about spending cuts on the back-burner, the devastating effects of sequestration still loom over the commonwealth, which would be one of the states hit the hardest by the cuts.
Yet Cox predicts that the impact of sequestration could be of milder nature in the Tri-Cities area, including Fort Lee, than in other areas. "Defense cuts will hurt us, but Northern Virginia will take the biggest hit," he said. "We've already done a consolidation at Fort Lee, it is pretty well positioned. My guess would be that Fort Lee would probably make it alright," he said.
Dance agrees with Cox. "Fort Lee is solid and it stands, I think we are going to be fine," she said.
With Cox putting much of his efforts into the governor's K-12 initiatives, Dance said she will continue to work for voting rights in the next session. "I'm going to renew by bill for restoration of rights [for felons]," Dance said. Currently, Virginia is one of only two states where convicted felons are not allowed to vote, even after having served their time and having paid their debts to society, Dance said.
She also wants to continue to push for making early voting more easy. "People should be able to vote early without having to give an excuse," she said. "I don't think we should require people to have to give a lot of excuses. If people prefer it that way, they should be able to vote early," Dance said.
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