Opportunity Knocks as Bill Arrives to Governor McAuliffe's Desk

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Virginia’s legislature approved a plan last month which, if signed by Governor Terry McAuliffe, would create a new pathway for the approval of charter schools in areas with persistently struggling schools.

The new proposal, authored by Senator Mark Obenshain and Delegate Steve Landes, earned bipartisan support on its path to passage on February 28. The governor has thirty days from that date in which to sign or veto the measure.

The plan would establish regional school divisions, each with its own governing board, with the authority to approve new charter schools. Regional boards include representatives from each local school division in its jurisdiction to ensure its needs are addressed and a local voice be an empowered part of proceedings.

Virginia passed its charter school law in 1998, but the governance model has been slow to catch on. Today the commonwealth is home to just nine charter schools. Of these, only two – Community Public Charter School in Albemarle County and Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts in Richmond – were established the way most people envision the normal charter school process working, by applicants submitting proposals to authorizers. The other seven began as entities created by the school division in which they operate, or as district public schools converted to charter public schools under threat of closure caused by tight school budgets.

In Virginia, two major elements of state education laws have blocked the growth of its charter school sector. First, only local school boards are empowered to approve new applications. This exclusive authority, roughly the equivalent of asking a Dunkin Donuts owner for permission to open a Krispy Kreme store across the street, has resulted in a number of charter applicants never receiving full consideration. It has also effectively prevented serious applicants from making the major investments of time, energy and resources required to produce a high-quality charter application.

A second major obstacle that has prevented the growth of a more robust charter school movement is the lack of operating and financial autonomy many leaders feel essential to their ability to run effective schools. Virginia’s charter school leaders generally lack the autonomy to hire (or fire) their educators and administrators. Most Virginia charter schools don’t even have their own bank accounts. Instead, they rely on their local school districts for staffing and financial functions.

As described in a Washington Post editorial last month, the new plan “would loosen the chokehold that local school boards have in authorizing charter schools and ease restrictions on operations.” 

This plan, as passed by Virginia’s General Assembly, includes reasonable limitations on this new chartering authority. Only school divisions where at least one school has been denied accreditation status for two of the past three school years would be impacted by the plan. And small school divisions, with less than 3,000 students, would be excluded to prevent severe budget impacts.

“The bill was narrowly drafted for the areas of the state where we are having real concerns with student achievement in the schools [students] are in now and are not serving them to the best opportunity that we can have as a choice for these young people,” Delegate Landes explained during deliberations on the House floor.

The authors of this important new approach deserve much credit for this innovative way to improve the educational opportunities for families who have been underserved by their other public school options. As Chris Braunlich, the former president of the Virginia State Board of Education, points out, some 6,600 students have spent their entire school career to date attending schools whose accreditation has been denied. Braunlich and other leaders, including the National Alliance for Public Charter School, deserve much credit for their persistent work in researching and supporting this new approach.

Virginia’s Governor McAuliffe has an important opportunity, both to provide new educational options for Virginia’s most underserved families and to cement a meaningful legacy of supporting public school opportunities, by signing and enacting this plan. The commonwealth has largely missed out on the growth of vibrant, diverse and high-performing charter school sectors that its mid-Atlantic neighbors have experienced. Its families are well positioned now to benefit from the best school models and authorizing practices that have evolved in the decades since it first passed its original charter law.

Don Soifer is the Executive Vice President of the Lexington Institute and Vice Chair of the District of Columbia’s Public Charter School Board.