Public hearings before the Fairfax County School Board often last into the wee hours. In a county chock-full of smart and involved citizens, it’s not unusual for 80 people to volunteer their thoughts on the best choice for a third-grade spelling textbook.
So that was why the hearing the board held on April 22, 1999, was so striking. The issue at hand was whether to consider charter schools that would serve students with behavioral or learning problems, or those who otherwise struggled.
Just seven people showed up. Nearly all of them spoke in opposition to the idea, which was quietly laid to rest.
A few years later, in 2003, parents of children with autism presented the board with a proposal for a charter school that would offer these students a specialized type of intervention. The board added that instructional method to its existing public school options, and the charter idea again faded away.
In the ensuing years in Fairfax, there was never a loud public cry to establish charters. The reasons that charters gain traction in some communities — poor schools, hidebound union contracts and a lack of parental choices — simply didn’t apply here.
Our schools rank among the best in the country. Unions don’t wield the kind of power they do in some urban districts. And historically, the Fairfax system accommodated the need for parent choice. Over the years, it wisely created a variety of different learning approaches, from language immersion to year-round schooling to special focus schools.
Today, however, budget cuts have forced the school board to make tough choices. Funding for many of the district’s specialized programs has been cut. Parents in Mount Vernon recently rallied to raise more than $170,000 to keep the Hollin Meadows math-science program open. Schools using a modified calendar to add two weeks of instructional time saw that funding — and the extra learning time it provided for low-income students — cut two years ago.
“I used to tell people that there was no need for a charter school in Fairfax County,” says Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax), who served with me on the school board. “But times have changed.”
Kory is among those supporting a proposal to create a Fairfax Leadership Academy, a charter that will serve the needs of low-income middle and high school students. There are three compelling reasons why the board should concur.
First, the needs of those students aren’t being met. Yes, average test scores in Fairfax are still high. But those averages mask the fact that some students — particularly African Americans and low-income students — are struggling. Scores on the Virginia Standards of Learning exams show that such students in Richmond and Norfolk are outperforming their peers in Fairfax.
On the third-grade reading test, 44 percent of Fairfax’s African American students and 42 percent of low-income students scored “proficient” in 2010. In Richmond, the numbers are 50 and 51 percent, respectively; in Norfolk, 51 percent of both black and low-income students hit the proficient level. Those disparities continue as students move up. Low-income and minority students in Fairfax regularly score below the state average.
Second, the Fairfax Leadership Academy offers a new way to empower teachers. Like many other successful charters — including the nationwide Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and La Cima Elementary Charter School in New York — it would be organized and led by teachers.
But, finally, the board should approve this application because it’s simply not that different from programs it already supports. In fact, one could argue that Fairfax County currently runs one of the most successful charter (or charter-like) schools in the country — the elite Thomas Jefferson high school.
Ironically, many of the “innovative practices” proposed by the leadership academy — for example, the extended school year — are things that have been cut from the FCPS budget. Other ideas, like starting school an hour later, have not been tried because they were judged too costly.
School board members don’t need to make a policy decision. The board already has approved Policy 1400 on establishing charter schools. All they need to do is green-light an innovative program that offers a possibility of better serving kids who, frankly, need all the help they can get.
If the school board approves, the Fairfax Leadership Academy would open in August 2013. Fourteen years after that first public hearing, I’d say it’s an idea whose time has come.
The writer, communications director for the think-tank Education Sector, was a member of the Fairfax County School Board from 1991 to 2000 and chairman of the board from 1996 to 1998.