By Jill Turgeon
By this time next year, Loudoun County Public Schools could be among the first to be designated as a School Division of Innovation by the Virginia Department of Education. This designation would be a result of a new bill providing more freedom from state regulations, with the hopes of better meeting the needs of students and improve learning. It is also an example of the type of education policy that is being developed through open communication and coordination between local school boards and their respective state representatives in the Virginia General Assembly.
Each year, there are dozens of education bills that go before the House and Senate. And every year, school boards weigh in on what bills would or would not be of benefit to the local school division. The Loudoun County School Board has a process through which a formal Legislative Agenda is developed and shared with the Loudoun delegation of Virginia State Senators and Delegates before they head into session each January. But the process starts well before the bills are introduced.
Throughout the year in board discussions, through conversations with constituents and school staff, ideas start percolating with regards to potential policy changes at the state level. Then in the fall, the School Board’s Legislative and Policy Committee comes together with these ideas to develop a Legislative Agenda, which is discussed, modified, and eventually adopted by the full board. Many topics have been addressed in these agendas, including charter school legislation, speed limits in school zones, SOL reform, and various proposals related to local control. Some of these, such as the previously mentioned School Divisions of Innovation, have even made it through both houses of the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor.
This December, as is the case every year, the School Board will be inviting all of the State Senators and Delegates who represent any portion of Loudoun County to a breakfast at the LCPS Administration Building to present the Board’s Legislative Agenda for the 2018 Session. In addition to the legislators and school board members, the designated student school board members who serve from each of the 14 high schools, as well as Superintendent, Dr. Eric Williams, and members of his cabinet. This is a wonderful opportunity for all those involved in the policy-making process to have an open discussion about desired changes at the state level as it pertains to public education.
While the Legislative Breakfast, as it is referred to, is considered the formal introduction of the agenda items it is not the end of the discussion. Once the legislators return to Richmond for the start of that year’s session, the school board makes its way down south in late January/early February to meet up with them during the “crossover,” the time when the bills transition from one house to the other in the General Assembly. Here they break bread once again, taking an evening over to discuss the progress of the bills and inquire how to best advocate for (or against, depending on the position of the board) the proposals with other members of the state legislature. Then the following morning, board members head to Capitol Square to meet with legislators not only from Loudoun but often from other areas across the Commonwealth.
This past spring, when the School Districts of Innovation Bill (HB 1981, sponsored by Delegate Tag Greason) was signed into law by Governor McAuliffe, it permitted schools who receive this designation by the Virginia Department of Education to be exempt from regulatory provisions and allow them to adopt alternative policies in order to best meet the needs of students and improve student learning. Loudoun County Public Schools has been at the forefront of applying innovative teaching techniques, through the utilization of personalized blended learning models by tailoring educational experiences to the strengths and interests of students. And now, because of this new legislation, and potential designation by the Virginia Department of Education, LCPS may have more flexibility to continue with this trend in uniquely meeting the needs of all students.
The process of developing educational policy at the local and state level is multifaceted, and at times complex, but necessary. The passage of the School Divisions of Innovation Law was a great victory for local districts in maintaining local control in how educational practices are applied, and it seems that Loudoun will continue to forward their message of the importance of “local control” to the legislators in Richmond. It is, after all, the local districts that best understand the educational needs of their students and the best way in which to meet those needs.
Jill Turgeon is serving in her second term as the Blue Ridge District Representative on the Loudoun County School Board. Her views shared here are hers alone and are not an official statement from Loudoun County Public Schools or of the School Board.