Charter schools could help -- even in Northern Virginia

By Chris Braunlich
Sunday, March 7, 2010

Public charter schools are supposed to be independently operated public schools -- places where educators have the freedom to design instructional programs that best serve their student population and, in turn, are held more tightly accountable for student performance. In the District, where 38 percent of students attend charters, those schools are among the highest performing in the city.

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's proposal to allow the State Board of Education to precertify the quality of charter school applications and offer a reconsideration process for those rejected by local school boards brought an initial flurry of dissent from those very same school boards and the Virginia School Boards Association. On Thursday, a Virginia Senate committee passed an amended version of the proposal that would give local boards ultimate authority over whether to approve charters.

At stake in this fight is $350 million in federal Race To The Top funds -- funds that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says are more likely to go to states with strong charter school laws that include "real autonomy for charters combined with a rigorous authorization process and high performance standards." Those dollars could be used across the state to make a good school system even better.

But Northern Virginia school boards argue that their local schools are doing well and that they don't need charter schools, and they have resisted charter law changes.

Part of the challenge is that school boards look at schools. Charter advocates look at students. Fairfax County, for example, can rightly argue that the vast majority of its schools are exemplary, but it is also undeniable that more than 600 middle school students along the Richmond Highway corridor are either not reading or not doing math at grade level, or both.

It is equally undeniable that those students could benefit from a quality charter such as the KIPP Academies, which operates 82 schools (55 of them middle schools) outside Virginia. About 81 percent of KIPP students are from low-income families, but more than 90 percent graduate from high school and 85 percent go to college.

The same holds true for educationally at-risk middle school students in Arlington and Alexandria, where nearly one in three students -- the percentage rises to nearly 40 percent of black and Hispanic students -- are not able to pass state math exams.

Unfortunately, quality charter schools modeled along the lines of KIPP or Democracy Prep (whose Harlem students score nearly as well as upper-class Scarsdale students) have said they won't come to Virginia, where they are not allowed to operate autonomous schools -- and hence can run a school only if it looks like the schools that are already failing to educate children.

Gov. McDonnell's proposal takes a first crack at solving that challenge. Instead of opposing change, school boards might better serve their constituents if they focused on finding ways to create truly autonomous charter schools, with a strong results-based accountability system that ensures that the children who need the innovation and excellence that come from quality charters will get them.

Even in Northern Virginia.

Chris Braunlich is vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy and a former member of the Fairfax County School Board. The views expressed here are his own.

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