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Virginia Attorney General Candidates Divided On School Takeover

Jefferson-Houston School in Alexandria is the only school in Northern Virginia that would be taken over as part of a new state law.
WAMU/Michael Pope
Jefferson-Houston School in Alexandria is the only school in Northern Virginia that would be taken over as part of a new state law.

One of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's signal achievements in education reform during his time in office is the Opportunity Educational Institution law, an effort that allows a newly created statewide school division to seize control of troubled schools. But Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli questions the constitutionality of handing over local tax money to the state and says he won't defend it in court.

"Cuccinelli, despite being pretty conservative on social issues, is a little bit harder to predict on certain other things, and I guess that education is probably one of those things," says Kyle Kondik, an analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Cuccinelli won't be in office to defend a lawsuit from the Norfolk School Board, though. The next attorney general will. The Democratic candidate is State Sen. Mark Herring, who voted against the bill when it was before the General Assembly.

Campaign manager Kevin O'Holleran says he has not yet decided how he will respond to the lawsuit.

"He voted against it because at the time he did not believe that it would hold up to constitutional muster," says O'Holleran.

Republican candidate State Sen. Mark Obenshain disagrees with Cuccinelli and Herring about the constitutionality of the law. He voted for the bill earlier this year and now says he will defend it in court despite what the current attorney general says.

"I believe that it is constitutional, and I would not hesitate to stand up for Virginia school children and families to defend this bill."

Obenshain acknowledges that part of the constitution gives local school boards authority over local school divisions. But he points to another part of the constitution that imposes an obligation on the General Assembly to provide high-quality education.

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