It is that experience that has driven me to dedicate a career in expanding school choice for millions of families in this country. It is also why Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s (R) pledge to improve public education starting on Day One struck a chord with me. It is predicated in large part on listening to families who are saying they want more options in public education.
Though critics accuse Youngkin of pandering to right-wing parents incensed about discussions of race in schools, the reality is that parents across the political spectrum have been demanding more choices about how their children are educated. By following through on his pledge to open 20 new public charter schools in Virginia, Youngkin can empower parents from all backgrounds, regions and neighborhoods and move beyond the polarizing education debates of the past two years.
More than 3.5 million students across the country are attending charter schools, but only about 1,200 students in Virginia have that option. The reason is an antiquated charter school law that is more restrictive than those in nearby blue bastions like D.C. and red states like North Carolina, and that is because Virginia limits how charters are authorized.
Virginians have long embraced local control of schools, but recently they’ve begun to realize that local control empowers school boards more than it empowers parents. Many school districts oppose charter schools because they don’t want educators outside the district’s control to make decisions about curriculums, personnel and spending.
As a result, discussions about school choice, educational innovation and academic results have floundered in Virginia and most students continue to be shuffled through schools they didn’t choose and over which their parents have little input. Deference to school boards has left parents feeling unheard and disrespected.
That’s why Youngkin has a unique opportunity to have an impact on public education — not in the racially revanchist way critics fear, but as someone who can leverage parental dissatisfaction to expand public school choices and give all parents, from all backgrounds, more opportunities to direct their children’s education. By focusing on the creation of new options for public schools, which charter schools are, Youngkin can give conservatives, progressives, moderates and others something to unite around while giving students a chance at a world-class education that for too long has been reserved to those whose parents could afford to move to top-flight suburbs or access private schools.
However, to create these options, Youngkin must work with state legislators to overhaul Virginia’s weak charter school law. The law must be improved to allow charter school founding groups to apply to entities other than local school districts, to provide educators the flexibility to innovate and to provide equitable funding to charter school students. If Youngkin and state legislators don’t change the law, the new options that are necessary won’t be created.
Charter schools have a well-earned reputation for giving families from low-income urban areas access to high-quality options with the same academic standards as other public schools. They are run by educators with a particular mission or motivation for delivering education in different ways. Charter schools may emphasize multicultural teaching, arts, technology, agriculture and the environment, civic leadership or simply aim to deliver an excellent education in new and vibrant ways. And because parents choose charter schools, the schools have an incentive to be responsive to parents.
In New York City and D.C., charter schools have helped students from low-income neighborhoods achieve at levels more commonly seen among wealthy suburbanites. But charter schools would also be welcome in Virginia’s suburban, exurban and rural communities, where the coronavirus pandemic revealed troubling gaps in local school systems. Districts have capable, well-meaning leaders, but the bureaucratic maze of rules and regulations ultimately prohibited them from making good decisions quickly, and, most important, it kept them from having the flexibility to make decisions that respond to the unique needs of different communities.
Throughout the United States, charter schools — which are more entrepreneurial, adept at making quick course corrections and focused squarely on student success and parent satisfaction — reacted much more nimbly to pandemic challenges than many districts.
To be clear, Youngkin’s education platform goes beyond charter schools, including raising state standards and improving teacher salaries, but the most consequential action he can take is to follow through on his pledge to open more charter schools and give parents in Virginia the opportunity to send their children to schools that fit their unique needs. By doing so, he can usher in an era of public schooling in the commonwealth that helps all students find a learning environment in which they can excel and prepare for success in the 21st century.