In Virginia, a watered-down bill on charter schools

Saturday, March 13, 2010

GETTING NEW charter school legislation through the Virginia General Assembly was a top priority of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R). He succeeded -- but we have to wonder if the compromises he made to win legislative approval undermine his worthy goals. It remains to be seen if the bill he proclaimed as a victory will lead to more charters being established in the state.

The bill passed by both chambers and now awaiting the governor's signature gives the state Board of Education a role in advising and supporting those seeking to start charter schools, which are public but independently run. It also requires local school boards to provide a written explanation for the rejection of any charter application. Disappointingly, though, on the crucial issue of who has the authority to approve the creation of charter schools, the status quo remains: Local school boards retain the final say. Mr. McDonnell's original proposal would have allowed charter applicants rejected by their local board to appeal to the state board.

Administration officials say that winning any state involvement in the establishment of charters is an important step, which they can bolster with judicious use of the governor's bully pulpit. Already Mr. McDonnell and his education secretary, Gerard Robinson, have succeeded in changing the nature of the conversation about charters. It's also true that a stronger bill faced obstacles, including a likely challenge to its constitutionality.

Still, it's hard to be optimistic about the compromise that Mr. McDonnell settled for, given Virginia's dismal track record (three charters operating after more than a decade) and the animus of local school boards toward charters. The experiences of other states show that the most successful charter schools don't flourish where local boards enjoy monopoly control. We wish the governor had pushed harder for more meaningful legislation.

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