“Do no harm.”
That was the most repeated line from the school and state leaders who attended the Loudoun County School Board’s Legislative Breakfast Friday. Over pastries, fruit and coffee, board members told the senators and delegates who represent Loudoun to take that message back to Richmond.
“You’ll see, more local control and funding is a common theme for us,” Brenda Sheridan (Sterling), chairwoman of the School Board’s Legislative and Policy Committee, said.
She and her colleagues laid out their legislative priorities during a 90-minute round-table discussion. Their list of requests covered a wide range of topics, from encouraging more career and technical education pathways to allowing public schools to set their own calendars.
But it was what role—if any—the state should play in expanding the county’s full-day kindergarten program that took center stage during the breakfast.
Loudoun County is one of three school divisions in Virginia that do not offer every kindergartner a full school day.
A question from incoming Del. John Bell (D-87) about what universal kindergarten would cost prompted a lengthy line of responses from School Board members, who outlined the obstacles to get there.
Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) said the board and Superintendent Eric Williams are proud of the fact that they’ve increased the percentage of kindergartners who attend a full day from 11 percent to 32 percent over the past year. And Williams has outlined a plan to expand the program to more than half of the county’s kindergartners within the next two years.
But, the chairman stressed, the district is having a hard time building schools fast enough to house newly enrolled students, let alone doubling the school day for all of its kindergartners. “We want to get there, but we’re looking at a gradual approach because of the space and funding constraints,” he said.
Board member Kevin Kuesters (Broad Run) said any state law to provide universal full-day kindergarten won’t help Loudoun implement the program any sooner.
Bell, Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31) and Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-33) told board members they’re not interested in passing down an unfunded mandate, especially in light of the county’s funding and space constraints. But they might be able to secure state funding to help the division get over those hurdles.
Wexton said it is not helpful that school and county leaders repeatedly protest any requirement to provide universal full-day kindergarten without funding. “We can’t help you with funding if we don’t know what the price tag is,” she said. “We don’t even necessarily see a plan. I want to know what it would cost to get there in five, 10 years.”
Then, she could go to the governor and her colleagues on funding committees with a specific funding request, she said.
A price tag will come eventually, Hornberger and Williams said. For now, it’s difficult to know how many classroom additions will be needed because no one knows exactly how much more the county will grow and where. “It’s just not that easy,” Hornberger said.
Also highlighted was the board’s request to reduce state-mandated tests and for more flexibility to meet Virginia standards.
The board supports an option for high-performing districts to get a waiver from accountability assessments so it can measure students’ success in their own way. This would free up teachers to do more project-based learning and encourage students to think critically.
Del. Thomas “Tag” Greason (R-32), chairman of the state House’s subcommittee on education reform, said the General Assembly as tasked the Standards of Learning Innovation Committee to look at how to make state exams more like a flashlight than a hammer, so schools are held accountable but not constrained to teaching to the test.
“So we agree with you… and that’s driving the dialogue at the state level,” he said.
Other lawmakers in attendance were state Sens. Jill Vogel (R-27) and Dick Black (R-13); Dels. Randy Minchew (R-10) and Dave LaRock (R-33); and incoming Del. Jennifer Boysko (D-86).
Contact Danielle Nadler at firstname.lastname@example.org.