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Is Fairfax charter school an impossible dream?

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Welcome to Fantasyland. Eric Welch just sent me a detailed plan for a public charter school in Fairfax County. He and several other people on the board of what they call the Fairfax Leadership Academy say they want to help low-income families with a school unlike any that local students have had before.

They are deluded to think this would ever be approved, although Welch, much honored as an educator, knows a lot about teaching. We met years ago when I visited his class at J.E.B. Stuart High School, where he used a program known as Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) to prepare average students for challenging courses. He is now the executive director and board chairman of the academy.

Counting him, the 17-member board includes 12 current or former Fairfax school educators, plus state Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax). I expected more sense than this from such capable people, well versed in the ways of school politics. I hope they read the next few sentences carefully.

There are no public charter schools in Fairfax County. There have never been any public charter schools in Fairfax County. There are no public charter schools anywhere in Northern Virginia. Every attempt to create one of those independently run public schools has died. Virginia law gives local school boards the power to veto charters in their territory. They usually don’t like charters because they might make regular public schools look bad. Fairfax has kept them out. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) failed in an attempt last year to deny school boards that power.

Fairfax school officials have suggested to me that charters are just for struggling school systems, such as the District’s. The District has many more charter schools than any jurisdiction in Maryland or Virginia, a bad sign to these folks. They will admit that some of the D.C. charters are successful, but so are Fairfax’s regular public schools, they say.

Didn’t Welch see me praise the intellectual depth of the Fairfax School Board on Monday? How can he disrespect such bright people? Perhaps he understands that even the wisest officials have blind spots.

In another time and at another place, the plan for the Fairfax Leadership Academy would be warmly embraced. Organizers want a seventh- through 12th-grade school in an area served by high schools that send less than 50 percent of their graduating seniors to four-year colleges. They want to create small learning communities with just 75 students in each grade. They want a longer school day and required summer school to create the equivalent of 55 more days in the school year. They want to use both AVID and the International Baccalaureate program. They want students to do service projects. They want to create a team-like atmosphere among the staff with collaborative leadership and evaluation.

Organizers are trying to win School Board approval by groveling. Their written materials remind me of my graduate school days, reading 14th-century appeals to the Chinese emperor. “We recognize the merits of the current public schools in Fairfax County and do not enter this venture with any notion of trying to undermine the success of a great school system,” they say. “Rather, our intention is to provide an educational program with a unique structure that will enhance the system’s ability to serve all of its students.”

Nice try. Like its equally conceited neighbor, Montgomery County, Fairfax will never allow such upstarts to show them up.

Oh, wait a minute. I forgot. Montgomery got a new superintendent this year and promptly approved its first charter school. Fairfax will have a new superintendent soon. I still don’t think the Leadership Academy has a chance, but we shall see. Some day, Fairfax might realize that as good as its schools are, it could always use a little competition.

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