Charter schools in Virginia

Monday, February 15, 2010

WITHIN HOURS of Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's announcement that he wants the state to be more welcoming to charter schools, there was expected pushback from critics who say Virginia already has some of the best schools in the country. They're right -- but that's no reason to limit school innovation or to deny parents options for their children. Mr. McDonnell's ambitious goals make sense for Virginia students, and the General Assembly should support them.

Fulfilling a campaign promise, Mr. McDonnell (R) unveiled a proposal last week that would, as The Post's Anita Kumar reported, expand the number of charter schools by reforming the way the publicly funded but privately run schools are authorized. Currently, the power resides solely with local school boards, and because they see charters as competition they generally oppose them. The result is that Virginia has only three charters, as compared, for instance, with 58 in the District of Columbia.

Mr. McDonnell wants to empower the state Board of Education so that it can review applications, make recommendations and, most important, overrule local decisions. An added benefit of the governor's plan would be to make Virginia more competitive for millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top funds.

Mr. McDonnell's plan came under immediate criticism from the Virginia School Boards Association and the Virginia Education Association. Among the concerns is the constitutionality of allowing the state to usurp local authority. This is a concern. Mr. McDonnell, a former attorney general well-versed in the state constitution, has undertaken his own review. For starters, the constitution speaks to the "supervision" of schools being vested in the local board -- not the "authorization." Indeed, there is precedent for the state circumventing local control to give rise to new schools, as witnessed by the establishment of governor's schools. And similar challenges to charters have successfully been fought in other states.

Assuming that Mr. McDonnell gets the necessary legislative approval in the session underway, work will need to be done to ensure the quality, not just the quantity, of charters. Experience has demonstrated that places with the best charter schools have the most rigorous authorization process, along with strong supports. Mr. McDonnell has signaled a welcoming willingness to work with key stakeholders on these details and his education secretary, Gerard Robinson, is an expert on charter schools.

Mr. McDonnell is right in saying that charter schools are not the "silver bullet" of education reform. Nor are they for everyone. But for some children -- particularly those ill-served by the one-size-fits-all aspect of traditional public schools -- they are the best alternative.

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