First of two parts
By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
RICHMOND — Republicans support them. Democrats like them. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all embrace them.
So why does Virginia keep getting F’s on charter schools?
“Lack of leadership” in Richmond, says Jeanne Allen, president of the national Center for Education Reform, which grades states’ charter laws.
“This isn’t rocket science; it should be bipartisan,” said Allen, whose Washington, D.C.-based organization promotes publicly funded, locally operated charter schools.
The charter movement has surged in the past three decades. Today, 6,000 charter schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia enroll 2.3 million students, with another million pupils on waiting lists.
Yet Virginia remains a backwater, with just five charter campuses.
Still haunted by the days of “massive resistance” to school desegregation, Old Dominion politicians have been leery of charters. Lawmakers from both parties ritually cite Article VII, Section 7 of the state Constitution, which declares, “supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board.”
Local boards, unwilling to surrender their “vested” public-school monopoly, have all but barred the door to charters.
Ember Reichgott Junge, a former Minnesota legislator who helped pioneer charters in her state, says Virginia’s first goal should be to establish more authorizing bodies.
Like other charter-friendly states, Minnesota allows school boards, higher-education institutions and large nonprofits to approve charter-school applications.
“Virginia won’t have a robust charter program until you have more authorizers,” Junge said in an interview with Watchdog.
Junge’s book, “Zero Chance for Passage,” encapsulates the uphill battle in the commonwealth.
Christian Braunlich, a member of Virginia’s state Board of Education, says, “Even assuming there were multiple authorizers, there would then be the practical issue of funding. Because the state contribution to education is, on average, about $4,600, state funding alone would likely be inadequate to fund a quality charter.”
“And,” Braunlich predicts, “localities would likely fight hard to protect locally raised funds over which they would then have no control.”
Allen says it is “very disappointing to watch Republicans and a handful of Democrats who won’t even challenge” the status quo in Richmond.
“Legislative powers trump education powers,” she argues. “The Legislature has ability and authority to create new kinds of public schools and give others the authority to create them. Pass a bill, and let’s see.”
At the General Assembly this year, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, proposed a constitutional amendment to grant the state board authority to establish charter schools. His resolution failed in the evenly split Senate, 20-19-1.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli is ready to renew the fight.
“Virginia has one of the most useless charter-school laws in the country,” the attorney general says.
“While Virginia technically allows charter schools, any charter school has to be approved by the local school district within the boundaries it would be operating. This creates a conflict of interest. It’s like Pepsi having to get permission from the board of directors of Coca-Cola to sell a new product,” he says.
As part of his 12-point education plan, Cuccinelli would allow the option of converting chronically failing public schools into charters.
State Sen. Tom Garrett, R-Louisa, says parental choice — including more charters — is crucial.
“This is an idea that has succeeded in states as politically diverse as Massachusetts, Louisiana, Tennessee and Michigan. It’s not just all red states and blue states,” Garrett told WINA radio.
Cuccinelli’s Democratic rival, Terry McAuliffe, has been quiet on the subject. The state’s largest teachers’ union, the Virginia Education Association, opposes charters.
Other union leaders say it’s time to move forward.
Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, says his group is supporting a proposed charter high school called the Fairfax Leadership Academy.
“We support it because it’s teacher-directed and helps at-risk kids,” Greenburg said.
Demonstrating the bipartisan appeal of charters nationally, the late Albert Shanker, an unabashed liberal and founder of the American Federation of Teachers, observed that “school districts can take their customers for granted” when meaningful competition is lacking.
Shanker asserted that charters empower teachers to design more efficient and effective educational models, and prod conventional public schools to improve. They also facilitate desegregation.
The 13-year-old Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., is a top-rated Pre-K-8 campus with a student body that is 36 percent black, 32 percent white, 28 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian. Forty percent are eligible for free or reduced price lunches.
“Perhaps its demographics help to explain why Cap City was the very first school Barack and Michelle Obama visited after the president’s first inauguration,” says Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Junge, whose Minnesota legislation won favor with Republicans and Democrats alike, discounts the shibboleth that charters — which accept students on a first-come, first-served basis, and often by lottery — are socio-economically elitist.
“Some of our strongest supporters were from communities of color,” recalled the Democrat, who noted that Minnesota’s 150 charter campuses are spread among the state’s urban, suburban and rural districts.
“Only about 5 percent of students in public schools attend charters — but 100 percent have the choice,” Junge said.
NEXT: Can charters lift Virginia schools out of Lake Wobegon?
Kenric Ward is a national reporter for Watchdog.org and chief of the Virginia Bureau. Contact him at [email protected] or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward