McDonnell's charter school plan faces resistance from local officials

John Stevens
John Stevens
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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010

RICHMOND -- Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell often talks about his long-standing belief that government closest to the people governs best, a philosophy rooted in his conservative principles.

But when he began searching for a way to expand the number of charter schools in the state -- one of his top goals -- he turned not to local government but to the state.

McDonnell (R) proposed this month that those seeking permission to open charter schools -- a publicly funded, privately run education alternative -- be allowed to appeal to the state Board of Education if they are rejected by local school boards, which have the authority to approve or deny applications.

That proposal appears to contradict comments that he frequently made on the campaign trail and in his inaugural address last month.

"More often than not, Richmond knows better about the hopes and dreams of the people than Washington," McDonnell said Jan. 16. "And Galax and Fairfax and Virginia Beach know far better than Richmond."

But McDonnell said in an interview last week that his charter proposal would still allow local school boards to make decisions while giving the state a place in the process.

"It's already well established that both the state and local government have a role in educating our young people," he said. "It's a hybrid system already. . . . It's perfectly consistent with the state and local partnership."

Many conservatives acknowledge a conflict but say they can accept it if McDonnell's proposal satisfies their long-held goal to produce competition in education, a goal they have tried to achieve for years with vouchers and tax credits but with limited success.

"It is a fundamental principle of the free market that when you infuse competition into any equation, you make it better," said Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah). "We are lacking in any substantial competition in education."

Since Virginia began allowing charter schools 12 years ago, only three have opened. None are in Northern Virginia. A fourth is set to open in Richmond in the fall.

David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute and a specialist in domestic issues such as education, said the situation is not ideal for McDonnell. "Governor McDonnell is grappling with a tension," he said.

Boaz said people on either side of the political spectrum can often appear inconsistent or hypocritical as they forgo one belief for another. "In this case, he wants to see the benefit of competition," he said.

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