Fight over Virginia's failing schools law

4:57 PM, Sep 4, 2013   |    comments
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ALEXANDRIA, Va. (WUSA9) -- There's a new rift between Virginia's Governor and Attorney Ken Cuccinelli.

It involves Governor McDonnell's signature "failing schools law" which allows the state to take over consistently low-performing schools. One of the schools slated for takeover is the Jefferson Houston School in Alexandria.

Despite the Governor's continuing strong support of the law, Cuccinelli now says the Opportunity Education Institution (OEI) law is unconstitutional and he won't defend it in a lawsuit from the Norfolk City School Board. 

"We notified them that we wouldn't be defending it because in our legal analysis that's not something we can do appropriately," said Cuccinelli in Richmond on Tuesday.

Many Democrats who voted against the law agree. 

"I agree with Cuccinelli on the constitutionality of the issue. That's probably the only place where we agree," said Senator Barbara Favola, (D) 31st.

The law allows a state board to take over schools that repeatedly fail to meet accreditation standards. Alexandria's Jefferson Houston school was slated for takeover, yet city officials threatened to sue before they would ever "hand over the keys."

"For the state to usurp its own authority and come in and take over local schools, it's just a bad idea," said former Alexandria Mayor Kerry Donley.

Though Donley, like Favola, agrees with Cuccinelli that the law is unconstitutional, he questions the gubernatorial candidate's motives in and why he didn't bring up these concerns to the General Assembly before lawmakers approved it.

"I do think there's a political angle here. Cuccinelli's running for governor and I think he's trying to avoid making enemies at the local level," said Conley.

Senator Favola said the controversy is an example of how the Attorney General's impartiality can be questioned since he is also running for the state's highest office. "This whole concept of Ken Cuccinelli staying in office while running for office doesn't sit well with me," she said. 

As for Governor McDonnell, he isn't backing down. 

He completely disagrees with Cuccinelli on the constitutionality of the law. The Governor's press secretary Taylor Keeney said in a statement, "According to the Supreme Court of Virginia it is well established that all actions of the General Assembly are presumed to be constitutional. Nevertheless, Virginia law provides for circumstances in which the attorney general determines he is unable or incapable of rendering legal services, including defending legislation passed by the General Assembly, and in such a situation that the law provides for the appointment of special counsel,. We look forward to working with special counsel to vigorously defend this important new law that will help ensure every child, in every community, in Virginia gets a great education."

"He still is our Attorney General, and it is unfortunate that Gov. McDonnell has to go out and hire a private law firm. I think that's ludicrous." Senator Favola says it's bad policy to allow a sitting attorney general to run for Governor.

Karen Graf, Chair of the Alexandria City School Board released this statement, "The Attorney General clearly identifies in his refusal to defend the law that it is unconstitutionally usurping the power of local school boards in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Alexandria City School Board supports Norfolk's effort."

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