By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
FREDERICKSBURG — A state senator wants to amend the Virginia Constitution to create more charter schools to boost academic competition.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, tried unsuccessfully to pass charter-enabling legislation this year. Now he’s raising the stakes with an amendment that must pass two consecutive General Assemblies and win a vote of the people.
“The growth of public charter schools is a priority across the country, but Virginia makes it almost impossible to obtain authorization to start a charter school and forces any clearing that hurdle to operate under rigid controls that compromise their ability to innovate and meet the needs of students not excelling in traditional public schools,” Obenshain said.
“Charter schools are succeeding across the country; it’s time to let them succeed here.”
Virginia has lagged badly in the formation of charter schools, earning the state an “F” from the Center for Education Reform. The state has just four such publicly funded, independently operated campuses while 41 other states have approved hundreds of the schools to promote education reform and parental choice.
Proponents applaud Obenshain’s effort, while acknowledging that it faces many historical and political obstacles.
“Virginia may be the last state (to authorize charters),” said Don Soifer, a scholar at the conservative Lexington Institute.
Soifer and others say charters harken back to the 1960s-era “massive resistance” of white Virginians who fled to alternative schools in the wake of court-ordered integration rulings.
But today’s charters are anything but all white. Attracting minorities and catering to special-needs students, the schools enroll diverse populations across the country.
Citing statistics from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showing the achievement gap widening between minorities and white students in Virginia, Soifer said, “The best performing charter schools in the nation have much to offer Virginia.”
“Research from around the country shows that students who attend charter high schools have a significantly better chance of earning a high school diploma, and attending college, than those in traditional high schools,” Soifer said.
In Virginia, the Latino dropout rate is 18 percent — three times the Caucasian rate — while the black dropout rate is 12 percent.
Soifer said charters “tend to be smaller, a factor which itself can prove important to many children.”
“High-performing charters provide academic rigor focused on preparation for college, the effective use of student performance data to guide instruction, a supportive, goal-oriented school culture and strong accountability for results that lead to continuous school improvement,” he added.
A 2010 study by the Mathematica Policy Research Center found that students attending charter high schools in Florida had a 15 percent better chance of earning a high-school diploma.
“The current achievement gaps are as indefensible as they are solvable, but operational and political factors in many communities seriously compromise the likelihood of opening quality charter schools under circumstances able to support success,” said Soifer, who was involved in launching the Patrick Henry Charter School in Richmond two years ago.
Paul Logan, deputy director of communications for Gov. Bob McDonnell, said his boss “shares the same goal as Sen. Obenshain to see more charter schools in Virginia, and will evaluate this among other options to achieve that goal.”
“At this time we are also evaluating various K-12 education reforms. The governor will roll out his K-12 reform agenda in due course before the session begins,” Logan said.
Chris Braunlich, a former member of the Fairfax County School Board, said the constitutional provision ensuring local control poses the biggest hurdle to increasing the number of charters in the state.
“As long as the supervision of school boards is absolute over facilities, personnel and maybe curriculum, we’re stuck,” Braunlich said.
Obenshain, calling charters a “bipartisan” venture, aims to break the gridlock by going directly to the state’s voters with a constitutional amendment.
Patterned after other reform measures in states with similar constitutional restrictions, Obenshain’s proposal would give the state Board of Education the “authority to establish charter schools within the school divisions of the Commonwealth.”
State Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said he was “not aware” of the Board of Education taking a position on Obenshain’s proposal.
Board President David Foster declined to comment “until such time as the full board discusses and takes a position on the proposed amendment.”
Even if the Obenshain amendment passes the 2013 and 2014 legislatures and wins a majority vote in a subsequent statewide referendum, its net effect on school boards is unclear as long as they maintain the final say in charter negotiations.
“Obviously, going through the school board is a slow process,” said Eric Welch, a leader in the two-year-long campaign to launch the Fairfax Leadership Academy charter school in Fairfax County.
“Having a state entity to promote innovation through charters could help. But you still have local issues. It’s a difficult process,” he told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau.
Braunlich, a state Board of Education member, remains skeptical about the efficacy of imposing charters from the top down.
“If the local board doesn’t want (a charter school), they can make it a failure. It’s like telling kids to eat their peas. They can still hide them in their napkin and throw them away later,” he said.
Contact Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org