A better path for charter schools in Virginia

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

IT'S NO COINCIDENCE that states with the most, and some of the best, charter schools don't give local school boards monopoly power over their establishment. Virginia, with just such a restrictive law, has only three charters. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) is right to seek a change. Virginia lawmakers should listen to him -- and Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and Maryland lawmakers should follow his lead.

Mr. McDonnell's education initiative faces its first test this week with hearings before House and Senate committees. Instead of the current practice that invests all chartering authority with local school boards, Mr. McDonnell wants charter school applicants to receive a pre-certification of quality from the state. He also would allow charter applicants rejected by their local board to appeal to the state Board of Education. Both changes would support the development of quality charter schools.

As part of their bid to kill the bill, opponents such as the Virginia School Boards Association make the dubious argument that the reason for the state's lackluster performance when it comes to charter schools is that Virginians don't want them. No way, they say, are local school boards hostile to, or dismissive of, charters. Tell that to Hampton University, which tried to start a charter in 2002, only to have its plans upended by the school board. Or to the Roanoke students who were being served by a promising charter that ended up closing because the local school board wasn't interested in helping it find the funds to continue. Or to nationally recognized charter operators like KIPP, which have never given a thought to locating in Virginia, given its inhospitable attitude to charters.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which examined state laws governing charters, ranked Virginia 35th of 40 jurisdictions evaluated. Maryland did even worse with a dismal 40. Maryland, with 36 charter schools, has limited authorizing authority and, even worse, it restricts the operational autonomy that is vital to the success of charters. As encouraging as it was to see Mr. O'Malley's change in heart in advancing modest reforms with regard to teacher tenure, it's disappointing there's been no mention of improving conditions for charters. Particularly pernicious is the state law requiring charters to abide by the collective bargaining agreements that cover employees in traditional public schools.

Most Virginia and Maryland jurisdictions have strong school systems. But if officials are so certain that no parents would welcome a choice, why not open the process? If there's no demand, charters won't come. As things stand, it's hard not to wonder why local boards fear the competition.

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