UNDER VIRGINIA law, only local school boards can approve charter schools. Since board members tend to view these public school alternatives as unwelcome competition, only nine charters have been approved in the state since the law was enacted 18 years ago. Now these same monopoly protectors are leading the fight against a modest reform of the law being considered by the General Assembly. Virginia lawmakers should put the long-term interest of students, particularly children at risk, over the self-interest of the education establishment.
At issue is a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the state Board of Education to authorize public charter schools. The measure won approval during last year’s General Assembly session, but final approval by both the state House and Senate is needed this year to put the amendment to a voter referendum on the November ballot. A fierce effort to defeat the measure is being waged in Richmond, led by the Virginia School Boards Association, which has long boasted about helping to weaken Virginia’s 1998 law. Virginia charters, for example, can’t hire their own leaders or teachers and don’t even have their own bank accounts.
The proposed amendment, contrary to the hysteria being whipped up about a radical change in education that would mean a loss of local control and funding, would be a small step in making the state a bit more welcoming to charters. If the measure is approved by voters, the General Assembly would still have to enact legislation next year to address financing and other details. Charters wouldn’t be foisted on unwilling communities, because the state board would become involved only if it determined the charter applicant had strong community support and a high-quality application and there was a finding of error by the school board in rejecting the application. No doubt the Fairfax community members who supported a plan by award-winning teachers for a charter focusing on underperforming students would have welcomed another viewpoint rather than see the bid for the Fairfax Leadership Academy die. And parents of struggling students in persistently failing schools might welcome having a choice of where to send their children to learn.
Research and experience have documented the success of high-quality charters, notably in helping low-income students achieve. States that have put in place muscular authorizing systems with proper oversight have produced the most effective charter schools. That, and not the tunnel vision of school districts wanting to protect their turf, should guide the decision-making of lawmakers and Virginia voters.