Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling cast tie-breaking votes Feb. 5 as the state Senate passed two key components of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s education reform agenda.
One of the bills requires the state Department of Education to grade schools on the same A-to-F scale used for students. The other establishes a state board to take over chronically failing schools. Both bills drew heavy Democratic opposition, resulting in 20-20 votes in the evenly divided Senate.
Bolling, a Republican who presides over the chamber, broke the tie on both bills. The House of Delegates also has approved its versions of the legislation.
In the Senate, Democrats decried McDonnell’s school grading bill as a gimmick while Republicans echoed the governor's claim that it would improve transparency and encourage parents and communities to help struggling schools improve. After a tied vote in which two Democrats and two Republicans broke party ranks, Bolling cast the tie-breaker.
“With Senate passage, I’m pleased to see that this measure to bring accountability and transparency to Virginia public schools is on its path to being signed into law,” McDonnell said in a statement that thanked Bolling for breaking the deadlock.
Sen. George Barker of Alexandria, who joined fellow Democrat Charles Colgan of Prince William County in voting for the bill, said that while public education in Virginia is good overall, there are still gaps between high-achieving and underperforming schools.
“This process will help focus attention where we need to help those students as well as recognizing those students who are already doing well,” Barker said.
Sen. Mamie E. Locke, D-Hampton, urged defeat of the bill.
“No school assesses a student’s overall performance with a single letter grade,” she said. “They provide parents with detailed progress reports, and there is nothing that is going to make this a good bill.”
She said the legislation is based on the assumption that “people are too stupid” to understand the current system of rating schools as accredited, accredited with warning or not accredited.
“We are looking for gimmicks to try to improve schools,” she said.
Sen. Harry Blevins of Chesapeake, a retired public school educator, and Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta County were the only Republicans voting against the bill.
Democrats in both chambers also opposed McDonnell’s legislation to create an “Opportunity Education Institution” to take over failing schools. The bill creates an 11-member state board to restore such schools to full accreditation before turning them back over to the locality.
Del. Robert K. Krupicka Jr., D-Alexandria, said one of the few schools that likely would be taken over by the state is in his district. He questioned the wisdom of ceding control “to a benevolent bureaucracy that is somehow going to know better,” adding that he trusts the locality’s newly elected school board to improve the school.
“I think we’re being sold a bill of goods,” he said.
Supporters of the bill argued that local boards have had ample opportunity to improve schools, and some continue to fail.
“We’re not going to stand by and watch things get worse,” said Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Prince William.
The House voted 66-34 to pass the bill.
In the Senate, the bill initially failed by one vote when Blevins sided with Democrats. Without explanation, he requested a new vote minutes later and switched sides, allowing Bolling to decide the issue.