Virginia lawmakers have sent a bill to Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) that would ease the creation of charter schools in cities and counties with chronically underperforming schools, an effort to expand the charter movement in a state where it has struggled to gain a foothold.
The bill’s proponents said students in schools that repeatedly fall short of standards deserve a shot at a better education, and charter schools — publicly funded but independently operated — are an answer.
“I really tried to come up with a proposal that dropped a lifeline into some of the communities that really, really need some innovation and some reform in their schools,” said state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Rockingham), one of the bill’s sponsors.
Critics said the proposal takes control from local school boards best equipped to make decisions for their communities. They also contend that shifting state funds to charters would hurt regular public schools.
“The charter school is not going to be able to take all of those children in that quote-unquote failing school,” said Jim Livingston, president of the Virginia Education Association, which represents teachers. “So what happens to the kids who are left behind? The quality of their education gets even worse.”
While charter schools have proliferated across the country since the 1990s, they have faced challenges opening in Virginia because state laws give local boards authority to approve or deny charter applications. The bill would change that, authorizing the creation of special charter school boards to review applications.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools counts more than 6,900 charter schools nationwide with about 3.1 million students, up from 400,000 students in 2000. But there are just nine charter schools in Virginia. Two of them are in Northern Virginia; both opened in Loudoun County in the past three years.
Only four states had fewer charter schools than Virginia in 2015-2016, according to the alliance: Iowa, Mississippi, Wyoming and Maine.
The alliance said the District had 115 charter schools and Maryland had 50.
The charter movement is likely to get a boost from President Trump, who has pledged to spend $20 billion on private-school vouchers, charter schools and other alternatives to traditional public schools. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spent much of her career pushing for charter schools and private-school vouchers. How Trump and DeVos will influence charter growth in Virginia and other states remains to be seen.
The bill, delivered Tuesday to McAuliffe, targets school systems with more than 3,000 students and at least one school that has been denied state accreditation in two of the last three years. Ten systems — including those in Alexandria, Richmond, Henrico County and Virginia Beach — fall into that category.
The bill would empower the Virginia Board of Education to create regional charter school districts — each encompassing two or three of the targeted school systems — and to appoint separate boards to approve and oversee charter schools. The state board would appoint eight of the nine members of each charter school board, and the local school systems would appoint the ninth.
Brian Coy, a spokesman for McAuliffe, said the governor is reviewing the bill. McAuliffe has until March 27 to decide whether to offer amendments, veto it, sign it or let it become law without his signature.
“He’s not opposed to innovation, but the devil is in the details,” Coy said.
The legislation, sponsored by Obenshain and Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta), cleared the Republican-led General Assembly largely along party lines. The House gave final approval Feb. 20 on a 54 to 43 vote, with Democrats united against it and 11 Republicans opposed. It passed the Senate a day later 21 to 19, with one Democrat voting for the bill and one Republican against it.
If the governor vetoes the legislation, it would not become law unless two-thirds of both houses voted to override.
The Virginia School Boards Association opposes the bill because it would take authority away from local school boards to approve and oversee charters in their own communities.
“We believe that the local board . . . is in a better position to determine what the needs of the students are than a state agency which is appointed by the governor,” said Stacey Haney, a lobbyist for the association.
But Russ Simnick, senior director of state advocacy and services for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which helped draft the bill, said Virginia schoolchildren will benefit if charters are given more control over personnel decisions, finance, curriculum and class schedules.
“If you don’t have the opportunity to operate, then there’s no room for the innovation to occur,” Simnick said.