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Virginia poses challenges for charter school advocates

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2009; C01

Tuesday's elections in Virginia swept a staunch supporter of charter schools into the governor's mansion, raising hopes for advocates in a state that has been skeptical of the publicly funded, privately run alternatives to regular public schools.

But despite Republican victories in the governor's race and some key legislative contests, significant hurdles stand in the way of any quick moves to ease approval of charter schools, education activists say.

Virginia's constitution places tight limits on what kinds of schools can be established without the assent of local school boards, which typically oppose charter schools. The state Board of Education is stocked with charter doubters, and term lengths mean the board will stay that way for at least another year and a half. And leaders in the Democrat-controlled state Senate remain opposed to charter legislation. "The governor can't change the law," said Roy Gamse, executive vice president of Imagine Schools, a national charter school operator with schools in the District and Maryland. "Only the legislature could do that."

There are only four charter schools in Virginia, a stark contrast to the District, which has 58. The schools are freer to experiment with schedules and curriculum than regular public schools and are popular with education reformers, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama.

Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell (R) has proposed creating a path for charter proponents to appeal rejections by school boards, and he wants to allow other authorities to approve charters.

Obama focused on charter schools during a 10-minute phone conversation with McDonnell on Wednesday. But teachers unions and education lobbyists have battled charter-school legislation and sought to limit charter school autonomy; the schools typically are not unionized.

McDonnell presumably will seek changes to Virginia's charter law, which is rated 38th among 41 state laws by the Center for Education Reform, a charter advocate based in the District. (The group ranks Washington's law second in the nation.) Until 2004, Virginia's local school boards were not even required to read charter applications. Their decisions are final. Some say that because local districts shoulder most of the burden of paying for schools, they should retain their decision-making power.

"Those that pay the piper should call the tune," said Robley S. Jones, director of government affairs for the Virginia Education Association, which represents teachers. He said that the state's system of Governor's Schools -- high schools for gifted students that draw from across an entire region, not just a single school district -- has quelled demand for charters.

Charter advocates counter that the state's restrictive laws have chased away potential applicants, and they say gifted programs are not comparable because charters typically enroll all comers. House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell (R) said he was "enthusiastic" about the chances for charters, and did not think the Senate's Democrats would be a unified opposition. "I think you can get some unique alliances on this issue," he said, pointing to Obama as an example.

McDonnell and charter proponents will have on their side the power of the federal education stimulus package, which gives preference based on states' openness to reforms such as charters.

Senate Democrats are not convinced. Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) reiterated his opposition to the schools, saying "there's no evidence that, when you have a suburban-oriented state, those things do any better than the normal public school system."

McDonnell eventually will be able to influence policy through his appointments to the state board. But it has no charter proponents now, and McDonnell's picks will not have a majority until July 2011.

Some advocates think the most immediate change will be McDonnell's rhetoric. "Some of this is just a question of leadership," said Andrew Rotherham, a former member of the state board and a charter proponent. "You have that bully pulpit, and good politicians know how to use it."

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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