Charter Schools in Virginia

Sunday, July 5, 2009

IT MAY BE true, as some pundits have suggested, that Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell's full-throated support of charter schools is an attempt to usurp Democrats' traditional claim on education as an issue. Whatever the reason, Mr. McDonnell is unquestionably on the right side of this debate. Let's hope the needed attention he is focusing on charters will shame the state into changing its backward policies toward these independent public schools.

Mr. McDonnell, running against Democratic nominee R. Creigh Deeds, is making the expansion of public charter schools a major plank in his platform to improve public education. Virginia ostensibly allows the establishment of charter schools. However, because the state gives local school boards -- which have a bias against charters -- total authority to approve charter schools, only four charter schools have opened in Virginia in the past 11 years. Contrast that with 396 schools in Florida, 97 in North Carolina or 34 in Maryland. Nationally, about 4,600 charter schools serve 1.4 million students. Virginia is badly out of step in not welcoming schools that have fostered innovation and shown success with at-risk students.

If elected, Mr. McDonnell promises to give charters another avenue of appeal through the state Board of Education, as well as providing resources to support the growth of quality charters. "I will work with the Obama administration to put Virginia in the vanguard of the charter school movement," Mr. McDonnell says; his willingness to align himself with a Democratic administration that has threatened to withhold federal funds from states hostile to charters is noteworthy. Mr. McDonnell is equally reform-minded in other areas of education, supporting performance pay for principals and teachers and favoring ways to give parents more of a choice in their children's schooling.

Mr. Deeds's education stance is less defined. His Web site promises that he will make college more accessible and affordable, expand pre-kindergarten opportunities, and provide more money for teachers. Mr. Deeds says that he supports charter schools but, as the Richmond Times-Dispatch noted, he is less enthusiastic than Mr. McDonnell is. Mr. Deeds did vote for a bill during this year's legislative session to remove limitations on the number of charter schools a school board may approve. Sadly, though, he doesn't want to deny local school boards the power to control the start-up of charters in the misguided belief that it would drain money from public education; never mind that charters are public schools.

Virginia's gubernatorial campaign is still in its early stages; education -- and the all-important issue of charter schools -- needs to be a main topic of conversation.

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