By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010; B01
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."
Charter schools are freer to experiment with schedules and curricula than regular public schools and are popular with education reformers.
Virginia has three charters, compared with the District, which has 58. None of the Virginia charters are in Northern Virginia, but a fourth is set to open in the Richmond area in the fall.
Charter advocates say the state's restrictive laws have chased away potential applicants, but Lacy said that there has not been much demand for charter schools and that many of the applications have not been "stellar."
Kitty Boitnott, president of the Virginia Education Association, which represents teachers, said her organization is generally supportive of the concept of charter schools but wants to make sure the program results in high-quality schools.
"We will be watching very carefully," she said.
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.
Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) has also introduced a bill that would require school boards to explain why they reject a charter school application, instead of just saying no outright, as the law allows.
McDonnell said he hopes that the changes will help Virginia secure $350 million in federal funding through Obama's Race to the Top program. The state applied Jan. 19.