The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A chance for charter schools to finally break through in Virginia

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). (Paul J. Richards/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

WHILE MUCH of the country has seen dramatic growth over the past 15 years in the number of public charter schools and students, Virginia has been an outlier. Its public charter school law, enacted in 1998, has been ranked as one of the worst in the country, and today there are only nine public charter schools operating in the commonwealth. That may not be a big deal for families fortunate to live in districts with good schools, but for children trapped in chronically failing schools it has been devastating. So let's hope an effort now underway in the General Assembly for modest changes in this archaic law advances and that Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) doesn't squelch it.

Both the state House and Senate have approved versions of a bill that would loosen the chokehold that local school boards have in authorizing charter schools and ease restrictions on operations. A final vote by the House on the Senate bill is expected within a week, and charter advocates are cautiously optimistic. Under the measure, the Virginia Board of Education would be able to create new regional public charter school divisions with the power to approve new charter schools in areas of the state with persistently low educational performance.

The plan is carefully framed to deal with some of the objections that have undermined past efforts to reform the charter law. School systems with fewer than 3,000 students would be excluded, negating concerns that a charter could have a severe impact on small school divisions. Public charter schools would have no claim to local funding, and existing schools would continue operations unaltered, without loss of needed resources or local control. Only school divisions with one or more schools having had state accreditation denied for at least two of the past three years would be targeted, countering the notion that charters are superfluous in a state that overall has a good public education system.

The sad fact, as former state school board member Chris Braunlich recently wrote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, is that while the state has been able to brag about its rank on metrics such as SAT and Advanced Placement scores, nothing has been done to effectively deal with the school districts — including Richmond and Norfolk — that have persistently failed to effectively educate their students, many of them minorities or disadvantaged. There is no one easy answer, but charter schools have been shown to be effective at improving student performance and offering parents a critical choice. That Virginia has been so unwelcoming that quality charter operators don't even think about applying is to its discredit.

The critical vote in winning Senate approval came from Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax), who crossed party lines in the 21-to-19 vote. In choosing children over politics, he set a good example that Mr. McAuliffe should follow if this bill reaches his desk.

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