Charter school advocates regularly spotlight Virginia as having one of the nation’s unfriendliest charter school laws, largely because local school districts have sole discretion to approve or deny charter applications.

Virginia school districts mostly deny them: There are only four public charter schools in the state, a situation that frustrates politicians who want a charter movement like those taking root in cities across the country, including the District.

State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), seeking to end that frustration, has said that as governor he would work to amend the Virginia Constitution to help charter schools and private schools compete with the state’s traditional public schools.

“We have kids trapped in areas where they can’t succeed,” Cuccinelli said in a radio interview the day in August he released his education platform. “The only quick way to salvage those kids’ education is to put it in the control of their parents.”

The differences in the visions of public education outlined by Cuccinelli and the other major-party candidate for governor are pronounced. Cuccinelli hopes to expand taxpayer-funded alternatives to traditional public schools. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee, advocates shoring up the state’s highly rated educational system with more funding.

“Over time, the commonwealth has reduced investment in our schools, undermining our curriculum and school services and shifting the burden to local school districts,” McAuliffe said at a campaign kickoff event at George Mason University’s Arlington County campus in the spring.

Cuccinelli’s proposed amendments — which need legislative and voter approval to become effective — would allow the state Board of Education to approve charter schools. They would also permit public support of religious schools through voucher-like scholarships or tax credits, which parents could use to transfer their children out of public schools.

On the other hand, McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, has called for increasing state spending on public education, which currently lags below 2009 levels, and for boosting teacher salaries.

McAuliffe’s campaign has repeatedly called education spending an “investment,” and though he does not oppose locally approved charter schools, he is not promoting them.

“Terry is focused on improving the system of public education that serves the majority of Virginia’s children,” said Josh Schwerin, a campaign spokesman.

Despite their differences, the candidates share a sense of urgency about overhauling the state Standards of Learning tests, designed to measure student achievement against the state’s expectations of what students should know at each grade. Responding to complaints from parents and teachers across the state, the candidates have said they would seek to make the tests more flexible and more focused on higher-order thinking skills.

The Libertarian candidate, Robert Sarvis, whose support has reached double digits in recent polls, called for abandoning the SOL tests altogether. He also wants to inject competition into public education by expanding charter schools and creating a universal system of tax credits and school vouchers.

Such reforms tend to be embraced most readily in states where schools are struggling more than they have been in Virginia.

In Virginia, the public education system is often lauded for its successes. Virginia students outperform national averages on standardized tests. Nearly nine out of 10 students graduate on time, and Education Week ranked the state fourth in the nation in its latest Quality Counts survey.

Virginia is one of a handful of states that have not adopted the Common Core, a national approach to academic standards and testing, whose implementation has caused a backlash in many states. Cuccinelli said he is opposed to the Common Core; McAuliffe has said that he would consider adopting the Common Core if efforts to reform the Standards of Learning are unsuccessful.

Cuccinelli has focused his attention — and many of his campaign stops — on pockets of urban poverty and persistently low-performing schools. In Petersburg and Norfolk, he has spoken of giving parents in failing schools a way out. His proposals — which mirror Republican initiatives across the country — would give parents the right to petition the state to have a failing school turned into a charter school.

The Virginia Education Association, which represents more than 60,000 teachers and other school employees, opposes his plans to divert public education dollars to private institutions.

Although charter schools have nonpartisan appeal to voters nationally, some of Cuccinelli’s other proposals are likely to find support among a much more limited group of small-government advocates, observers say.

“This is not a populist agenda,” said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. “If Virginia is becoming more purple, the idea of vouchers for religious schools is running in the opposite direction of the way the state is running politically.”

McAuliffe has campaigned against what he calls Cuccinelli’s “extreme agenda” in education. His proposals, by contrast, are less sweeping. He wants to promote school partnerships with businesses or community colleges to enhance workforce training and college-preparedness. He talks about reducing the administrative workload of teachers and improving professional development.

“McAuliffe puts a lot of faith in investing in the current education institutions, while Cuccinelli’s plan largely challenges them,” said Don Soifer, executive vice president at the libertarian-leaning Lexington Institute.
Cuccinelli’s proposal to amend the state constitution is the most ambitious part of his plan, Soifer said.

The process requires majority votes by the General Assembly’s two chambers in two consecutive years as well as voter approval in a referendum. And local control of public education has been fiercely protected in Virginia, particularly in Northern Virginia, where most school funding comes from local tax revenue.

A proposed amendment early this year to give the state Board of Education power to authorize charter schools was unsuccessful in the legislature. Lawmakers say future battles would be intense.

“It’s a high bar to get the Virginia Constitution changed, but there’s no doubt that Cuccinelli is committed to trying to get it done,” Soifer said. “To enact the kind of changes he wants to make requires some major changes to the law.”