Welch and his allies envision a small college-prep academy for seventh-to-12th grade students who are at risk of dropping out or barely scraping by. They have been campaigning for a year, meeting with local leaders and pitching their idea as a complement — not a threat — to Fairfax public schools.
Welch, a teacher at J.E.B. Stuart High School, stressed that his team has roots in the county system.
“We’re not ‘charter school people,’ ” Welch said. But “we need to put every strategy on the table to deal with the achievement gap. That’s our priority. As good as we’re doing as a system, there are still more students we need to reach.”
He hopes to open the Fairfax Leadership Academy in fall 2013. Organizing it as a charter school — publicly funded but privately run — will enable him to raise private funds and seek federal grants, he said.
Charter advocates have long considered Virginia hostile ground, and that hasn’t changed under Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who promised a major charter school expansion when he was elected in 2009.
There were three charter schools in the commonwealth when McDonnell took office. Now there are four, according to the pro-charter Center for Education Reform, compared with 46 in Maryland, 107 in the District and 539 in Arizona. Some are in high-performing systems. Montgomery County, for example, approved its first charter school last year.
Virginia law gives local school boards authority to approve or deny a charter proposal. Charter advocates say the system creates a difficult hurdle because local boards are often loath to help create direct competition.
Emphasis on local control
But Virginia lawmakers have fought to protect local control. When McDonnell tried to wrest it away in 2010, he ended up with a compromise: The state Board of Education gets a first look at every charter proposal. If it passes muster in Richmond, the application goes to the local school board, which has final say.
“We must make an honest attempt to evaluate the proposal,” Fairfax School Board Chairman Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville) said. “We can’t simply say that we don’t believe in charters.”
Supporters of the Fairfax Leadership Academy view the school as a creative, homegrown approach to closing a stubborn achievement gap. Opponents fear that it will drain resources and students from traditional schools.
“We believe it’s going to draw some of our best students into that school when we’re already struggling,” said Joan Daly, a Falls Church High School PTA member opposed to Welch’s plan. “The school community doesn’t want it. We don’t feel there’s a need for it, and nobody asked us in the first place.”