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WaPo's McCartney: Walmart's Charitable Donations, Virginia Schools Fail To Meet Federal Benchmarks

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Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney talks about the latest news in the region, including Walmart's continued donations to chartable programs in the District and Virginia's failure to meet federal education benchmarks under the 'No Child Left Behind' law.

Walmart's chartable donations aims to secure future store openings

Walmart announced it’s donating $3 million to job training programs in the District. The company plans to build several more stores in D.C., but some critics have argued that Walmart will kill small local businesses and drive down wages.

"I think it's going to help to improve Walmart's corporate image in the District," says McCartney.

He says the move will help strengthen the Gray administration and others who are going to have to make zoning decisions. McCartney says the company’s support on issues such as education and job training will help secure approval to open additional stores in the future.

"It says it would like to open at least four stores and probably more down the road," he says. "Walmart is unmistakable opening its checkbook and pouring money into worthy causes in the District in order to try to pave the way to get this approval. It's no question that this kind of support is welcome. I don't think it’s actually going to be the deciding factor on this issue, but that’s because I’ve thought all along that Walmart was likely going to succeed in getting these stores open. So I see these kinds of contributions as a kind of insurance payment to make it even more likely that it’ll get what it wants."

McCartney says the Gray administration has been very supportive of this from the beginning.

"They want the jobs, they want the shopping, and Walmart isn’t really asking for a lot as these things go. It’s not asking for public subsidies, such as tax incentives, and its being very shrewd in its use of these contributions that’s giving money to projects and causes that are particularly dear to Mayor Gray."

Virginia schools fail to meet federal benchmark under 'No Child Left Behind'

This year, test scores in Virginia showed 62 percent of the schools in the state failed to meet federal benchmarks within ‘No Child Left Behind.’ That’s 23 percentage points higher than last year.

"What I think this really illustrates is some of the severe shortcomings in the 'No Child Left Behind' law,” says McCartney. "That's really what’s on display here. The bad test scores that came out yesterday were not so much a worsening or deterioration of education in Virginia. It was a reflection of the fact the federal criteria used to evaluate Virginia and other states got significantly tougher this year, as they do every year under 'No Child Left Behind.'"

The data said 62 percent of Virginia’s public schools failed to meet the testing goals in math and reading. That was up 39 percent from the year before. But McCartney says that no one really believes the quality of schools in the state is actually failing.

"What it does show is that the minimum passing grade is up five points in reading and six points in math from the previous year," he says. "So it’s like Virginia and the other schools have to kick a soccer ball into a goal net each year, and each year the federal government moves that goal net farther away. Another example locally is in Maryland this year, it had 44 percent of its elementary and middle schools labeled as failing. Now Maryland has repeatedly been listed as having the top schools in the country in nationwide surveys. So if 44 percent of Maryland schools are failing, imagine what that says about the rest of the country."

This matters partly because of the negative stigma attached to these test scores, but there are subsequent consequences as well. McCartney notes that if these schools don’t achieve 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014, then they lose some federal aid.

“Now everybody’s known for years that this is unrealistic, and the law was going to have to be changed. But the same kind of gridlock we’ve seen in the budget debate in Congress, we’re seeing over education in Congress. And it has not been able to agree on an overhaul.”

In response to this, Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan said he was going to grant waivers to individual states so that they wouldn’t get punished under this law. That would be a big help to Virginia and others who are likely to apply for these waivers.

However, some critics are already complaining that Duncan doesn’t have the real authority to do that, so this argument is likely going to continue.

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