By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
FREDERICKSBURG — A perennial leader in many education indexes, Virginia received an F from a national charter school group for restricting the publicly funded, locally operated campuses.
With just four charters serving 354 of Virginia’s 1.3 million K-12 students, the state ranks second to last among 42 states that have charter laws, says the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform.
By contrast, Indiana and Florida have hundreds of charter campuses competing with traditional public schools.
“Gov. Bob McDonnell remains committed to increasing educational opportunity for all Virginia students and has been a strong proponent of strengthening Virginia’s public charter school law,” said the governor’s spokesman, Jeff Caldwell.
McDonnell pushed legislation in 2010 requiring charter applicants to file proposals to the state Board of Education for review prior to submission to the local school board.
“This is important as it helps to have a transparent approval process from the beginning of submission,” Caldwell told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau.
“Requiring applicants to submit their application to the board, it will ensure we have strong applications for high-quality charter schools, prior to submitting to the local school board.”
But charter advocates say the prior review is a hollow exercise that leaves local boards holding all the power.
“It’s like letting McDonald’s decide whether a Wendy’s can open next door,” said RiShawn Biddle, an education analyst who writes at the “Dropout Nation” blog.
“Virginia is not willing to embrace systemic reforms on charters.”
The American Legislative Exchange Council was similarly downbeat, giving Virginia a C- for education reform, putting the state in the middle of the pack at 26th place nationally.
Meg Gruber, president of the Virginia Education Association, disputes the notion that the state’s charter law is overly restrictive.
“It goes back to local control. School boards and the local communities determine what kind of education their kids need,” Gruber said.
And VEA, the state’s teachers’ union, asserts Virginia must be doing something right to earn a fourth-place ranking in Education Week’s annual “Quality Counts” survey. The report rates states on measurements ranging from the “teaching profession” to “standards, assessments and accountability.”
But noting that Virginia earned some of its lowest scores in Ed Week’s “K-12 Achievement” category, the Center for Education Reform said the state could do much more to promote healthy competition via charters.
CER downgraded the state’s charter law for holding all charter-school teachers to the same employment rules and retirement system that apply to instructors at conventional campuses — thereby raising the costs of operation while shackling charters with whatever funding levels local boards deem appropriate.
CER also noted that charter applicants have no right to appeal a rejection by a local school board.
Though the state does not limit the number of charter school that can be opened, CER said Virginia applies a “de facto cap by not encouraging or working to improve charter environment.”
“Leaders in Virginia have a false sense of security about the state of education that they fail to recognize how critical options are for children,” CER president Jeanne Allen told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau.
“Many reports — touted by the education establishment — suggest that the state’s schools rank high, but in reality, their scores on the Nation’s Report Card are no better than most, with reading, math, history and civic proficiency all well below 50 percent.
“While good schools exist in every community, most students simply have no choice, and no meaningful comparison to what could be. The state has a charter law in name only, restricting the opportunity to start or attend charters to districts that can control every piece of the process and content, so in effect, the schools approved have no real autonomy.”
National studies, including one by Stanford University, have shown mixed, or even inferior, results at charters. Other research suggests that economically disadvantaged and special-needs students at charters outperform their counterparts in regular schools.
One of the raps on charters is their own failure rate. Four charters have closed in Virginia, some due to financial woes. That’s hardly surprising, charter proponents say, since local school divisions set charter funding levels.
Meantime, charter proponents note that chronically failing conventional schools never close — they just shuffle personnel.
Biddle says Indiana, beginning with Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh and now under GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels, has evolved as a model for charter schools.
“There’s been a consistent effort there to open charters and to monitor them for quality,” Biddle told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau.
He said Indiana’s success has been driven by political and education leaders rallying the state’s media outlets and chambers of commerce to support charter initiatives.
“This hasn’t happened in Virginia,” Biddle said.
McDonnell maintains that improvements are coming through what he calls a more “transparent process.”
“We hope to encourage an open discussion about the benefits of charter schools and how they can serve students across the Commonwealth,” he said.
But Allen countered, “The state’s governor has ceded the issue to lawmakers and attorneys who think what exists is good enough.”
Todd Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said his group ranked Virginia 37th out of 42 states with charter-school laws.
“Receiving 67 points out of 238 possible, the state’s charter law is weak across the board,” said Ziebarth, vice president of state advocacy and support for the alliance.
Pointing out that no charter schools have opened in Virginia since the 2010 law took effect, Ziebarth predicted that if the governor doesn’t do more, the Old Dominion “will have the same number of charters it had when he took office.”
Contact Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org