Virginia governor wants more charter schools in state

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010

RICHMOND -- Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) unveiled an ambitious proposal Wednesday to expand the number of charter schools in Virginia as a way to offer a publicly funded, privately run education alternative.

McDonnell also said he wants to create virtual schools in which students can learn outside traditional classrooms and laboratory schools that would benefit from partnerships with Virginia colleges and universities.

All three proposals must be approved by the General Assembly during its 60-day session, which ends next month.

The recently inaugurated governor has declared charter schools a top priority in his first legislative session. He has long praised President Obama for his support of charters, and he recently hired a nationally known charter advocate as his education secretary.

"Charter schools aren't a silver bullet," McDonnell said at a news conference on Capitol Square, where he was joined by several lawmakers, former governor L. Douglas Wilder (D) and a few children. "But they are an important option for parents and for children seeking new options in a public education system."

McDonnell's proposal would make it easier for charter schools to open in a state that has not welcomed them by allowing applicants to circumvent local approval processes.

Virginia's constitution requires local school boards to authorize charter schools. But McDonnell wants charter schools to submit their applications to the state Board of Education for review and pre-certification recommendations before the applications go to school boards. If they are rejected by the local boards, he would allow the schools to appeal to the state board, which would have the power to approve them.

Virginia's constitution places tight limits on which kinds of schools can be established without the assent of local school boards, which typically oppose charter schools.

Patrick Lacy Jr., special counsel to the Virginia School Boards Association, said the appeals process part of McDonnell's proposal is "plainly unconstitutional."

"We respectfully disagree with the governor,'' he said.

Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania), chairman of the Senate's education and health committee, said he wants to review McDonnell's proposal but has concerns about whether such a measure would be constitutional.

"That has to be foremost in the discussion, how we deal with that constitutional provision," he said. "I don't know how you get around that."

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