The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Let’s remove local school districts’ power to block charter schools

Advocates for parents in Virginia suggest promising reforms, but fail to mention that one

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) speaks in Richmond about an executive order establishing K-12 lab schools in January. (Steve Helber/AP)
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The Washington Post published recently an intriguing commentary on education by Virginia Del. Nick Freitas and Americans for Prosperity-Virginia deputy director Jacob Fish. Its title was “Transform Virginia’s education system to create opportunities for all.”

My political views may differ somewhat from theirs. But our country has a long history of nonpartisan efforts to improve our schools. This could happen again with people like Freitas (R-Culpeper) and Fish in a state I love as much as they do.

My mother and her mother were born in Virginia. My first job at The Washington Post was covering night school board meetings in the Virginia communities of Arlington and Alexandria. I wandered off to assignments in China and California but realized by the 1990s that I wanted to write about U.S. teachers. Virginia at that time was making some daring reforms.

Its Standards of Learning exams raised the level of instruction in ways other states envied. Northern Virginia districts were also among the first in the nation to open college-level Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and exams to all students who wanted to take them.

Opinion: Transform Virginia’s education system to create opportunities for all

Freitas and Fish rightly focused their piece on giving parents the power to get their children the most skilled teaching. “Students should not be deprived of the education that is best for them because of their Zip code or their parents’ financial situation,” they said. They quoted Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) saying: “When parents are empowered and engaged, a child’s life is enhanced.”

They highlighted ideas such as state money to help pay for tuition, fees, textbooks, tutoring and other qualified expenses at schools parents have chosen. They said they wanted students to be able to attend any public school within or outside their school districts and enroll in apprenticeships and skills-based learning.

They left out, however, one important factor. I agreed when they said “parents are best positioned to make educational decisions for their children.” But parents need help finding what works. The state should encourage inventive educators to open new schools, something Virginia has resisted and Freitas and Fish didn’t mention.

Public charter schools are run privately with tax dollars. They aren’t perfect, but many of them have become creative devices for more effective teaching. Freitas and Fish mention charters but fail to point out that Virginia has only seven of them. This is because district school boards in the Old Dominion for years have been blocking new charters within their borders. Virginia appears to be one of only three states, the others being Maryland and Kansas, that give local school boards that exclusive power. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has some good information.

I live in California. It doesn’t have such restrictions, even though it has strong teachers unions that are critical of charters because most of them are not unionized. County school boards or the state school board in California can approve new charters if the local board doesn’t. Strangely, the charter authorization issue didn’t come up much in Virginia’s much-publicized furor over schools during the state elections last year, though Youngkin has called this year for 20 more charters in the state.

One of Virginia’s best districts, Fairfax County, is one of the worst on this. It has rejected good charter ideas not because the state’s teachers unions (weaker than in some other states) oppose them, but because many school leaders in affluent Fairfax think charters are beneath them. One of the best teachers I know tried to start a charter for low-income kids in Fairfax County. He had strong support from experts and community leaders but failed because school officials cringed at the idea of doing something charter-rich Washington, D.C., was doing. I sense some school boards also resist charters because they might show regular schools to be inadequate in some way.

Fairfax charter school: An impossible dream?

To make good decisions, parents need to see the best ideas in action. In the 1990s, two young educators started a small charter in the South Bronx. This was one of the first KIPP schools, now the largest charter network in the country. Many South Bronx parents thought KIPP teachers Dave Levin and Frank Corcoran were out of their depth. But when word spread about how much KIPP kids were learning, opinion shifted.

The KIPP middle school used the fourth floor of a regular public school in the South Bronx. The staff of that school tried to kick KIPP out of the building. The effort collapsed when more than 200 KIPP parents appeared at a crucial board meeting, chanting “KIPP, KIPP, KIPP, KIPP.”

Freitas and Fish should push for an end to giving local school boards exclusive power over charter authorizations. The fact that the issue rarely came up in the last election may mean campaign consultants didn’t consider it interesting to voters.

That’s good. It can be accurately described as nonpartisan. We all have differences with our neighbors, but many of us, perhaps begrudgingly, admit we are happier when we have something on which we can agree.

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