Va. Senate passes governor's plan to expand charter schools

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

RICHMOND -- The Virginia Senate on Tuesday passed Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's proposal designed to expand the number of the state's charter schools.

The Democratic-controlled Senate passed the bill 27 to 12. It had already won approval in the Republican-led House of Delegates.

The bill is a weakened version of the Republican governor's initial proposal, but he declared victory.

"I applaud the Republicans and Democrats who came together today to help Virginia schoolchildren, especially those who are at-risk and disadvantaged, gain more educational opportunities,'' McDonnell said in a statement.

McDonnell declared charter schools a top priority in his first legislative session. He has praised President Obama for his support of charters and hopes it will help the state receive millions of dollars through the federal Race to the Top grant program. Charters are freer to experiment with schedules and curricula than regular public schools. Since Virginia began allowing charter schools 12 years ago, only three have opened. A fourth is set to open in Richmond in the fall.

Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Lynchburg), who sponsored the bill, said the proposal would send a signal that Virginia wants to move forward on education reform.

"Virginia has a past that is one that we cannot be proud of on public education, and we should never, never, never go back," Newman said.

The bill gives the state Board of Education a role in advising prospective providers on their applications before they go up for approval before local school boards, but local boards would retain ultimate authority to approve such schools.

McDonnell's office had worked behind the scenes to negotiate a compromise with groups that represent teachers, school boards and superintendents -- all initially opposed to the bill -- to return some power to the local boards and ease concerns about the state having final control over applications.

But the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus remained opposed to the bill, arguing that such schools would help only a few select children.

"These bills are saying, 'Let's not educate all the children of all the people,' '' Sen. Yvonne B. Miller (D-Norfolk) said. " 'Let's select a few people and educate them very well.' This is a very bad bill. Based on our history, we should be ashamed of ourselves to even introduce such legislation."

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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