Charter schools have boomed nationwide in recent years, buoyed by bipartisan support from politicians such as President Obama and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. But they have barely gained a foothold in Virginia.
Now Fairfax County teacher Eric Welch is aiming to start Northern Virginia’s first public charter school, navigating an unfamiliar and politically delicate process with a proposal pending before the state Board of Education.
Welch and his allies envision a small college-prep academy for seventh-to-12th grade students who are at risk of dropping out or barely scraping by. They have been campaigning for a year, meeting with local leaders and pitching their idea as a complement — not a threat — to Fairfax public schools.
Welch, a teacher at J.E.B. Stuart High School, stressed that his team has roots in the county system.
“We’re not ‘charter school people,’ ” Welch said. But “we need to put every strategy on the table to deal with the achievement gap. That’s our priority. As good as we’re doing as a system, there are still more students we need to reach.”
He hopes to open the Fairfax Leadership Academy in fall 2013. Organizing it as a charter school — publicly funded but privately run — will enable him to raise private funds and seek federal grants, he said.
Charter advocates have long considered Virginia hostile ground, and that hasn’t changed under Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who promised a major charter school expansion when he was elected in 2009.
There were three charter schools in the commonwealth when McDonnell took office. Now there are four, according to the pro-charter Center for Education Reform, compared with 46 in Maryland, 107 in the District and 539 in Arizona. Some are in high-performing systems. Montgomery County, for example, approved its first charter school last year.
Virginia law gives local school boards authority to approve or deny a charter proposal. Charter advocates say the system creates a difficult hurdle because local boards are often loath to help create direct competition.
But Virginia lawmakers have fought to protect local control. When McDonnell tried to wrest it away in 2010, he ended up with a compromise: The state Board of Education gets a first look at every charter proposal. If it passes muster in Richmond, the application goes to the local school board, which has final say.
“We must make an honest attempt to evaluate the proposal,” Fairfax School Board Chairman Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville) said. “We can’t simply say that we don’t believe in charters.”
Supporters of the Fairfax Leadership Academy view the school as a creative, homegrown approach to closing a stubborn achievement gap. Opponents fear that it will drain resources and students from traditional schools.
“We believe it’s going to draw some of our best students into that school when we’re already struggling,” said Joan Daly, a Falls Church High School PTA member opposed to Welch’s plan. “The school community doesn’t want it. We don’t feel there’s a need for it, and nobody asked us in the first place.”
The 450-student charter school would include some elements found elsewhere in Fairfax, including rigorous International Baccalaureate classes and the Advancement Via Individual Determination program, which aims to help more students see themselves as college material.
A small school, supporters say, would allow teachers to develop strong personal relationships with students. In addition, students would go to school for more hours each day and more weeks each year, giving them additional time not just for academics but also for career education and college exploration.
Welch has proposed locating the school in the Falls Church area of Fairfax County at what is now Graham Road Elementary. Students there are moving in September to a renovated campus nearby.
The charter would target students in low-income neighborhoods on the county’s eastern side, including some in Annandale and Baileys Crossroads. The school would be open to anyone, with enrollment determined by lottery if too many students apply.
Former School Board member Martina A. Hone, now an advocate for disadvantaged children, described herself as skeptical of most charters. “But if you see what Eric is trying to achieve and if you really care about poor and needy kids,” she said, “you can’t help but go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ ”
Other backers of the proposal include include state Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax), a member of the board of directors, Del. Barbara J. Comstock (R-Fairfax) and Steve Greenburg, head of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers. The attorney for the proposed academy is Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax).
Where supporters see an opportunity, parents at Falls Church High see a problem.
The academy would be less than a mile from that high school, which has struggled to attract students. Many high-performers in its attendance area go elsewhere. The 1,500-student school is under capacity by 400 students.
Daly and other parents fear that the charter school would siphon off some of the area’s most-motivated and best-equipped students.
When the parents learned about the proposal last fall, they organized a group to advocate for Falls Church High and against the charter proposal.
They contend that it would make sense to locate the charter elsewhere, pointing out that black, Latino and impoverished teens are graduating at a higher rate from Falls Church High than from some other county schools.
Finally, they argue that the charter school would hinder Falls Church High’s chances of qualifying for a renovation anytime soon. The school, in a 1960s-era building that shows its age, is not scheduled to be renovated until 2024. That date could be pushed back if enrollment drops.
Welch said he wants to help Falls Church High get the renovation it needs. “We’re not trying to compete,” he said.
The state board is scheduled to consider Welch’s proposal Feb. 22. The Fairfax board is likely to take it up soon after. It could approve or deny the proposal or order revisions.
Or the board could turn Welch’s idea into the foundation for a new county program. That’s what happened the last time a charter school proposal — for students with autism — came before the School Board in 2003.
“If it’s a good idea,” said board member Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill), “then we should do it with all the resources we have in Fairfax County.”