By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
FREDERICKSBURG — As Fairfax County considers launching Virginia’s fifth charter school, the exercise is proving to be a steep learning curve.
The state Board of Education has endorsed the Fairfax Leadership Academy, a venture described as “wonderful” by the head of the local teachers union.
But the proposed grade 7-12 campus for at-risk students is not a slam-dunk.
Because Virginia gives local school boards the final say on any charter, FLA finds itself in the midst of a provincial and occasionally politicized vetting process.
Navigating a bureaucratic labyrinth of sometimes conflicting agendas, FLA began its quest for existence in the summer of 2010. FLA applied to the state school board in October and received the board’s unanimous endorsement in April.
“It was a shining star,” recalled Chris Braunlich, a member of the state school board and a former Fairfax board member.
But leading up to the Fairfax School Board vote scheduled for next month, FLA has encountered mixed signals from the district and stiff resistance from some members of the Falls Church community it hopes to serve.
“Obviously, going through the school board is a slow process. It’s a difficult process,” said Eric Welch, executive director of the nascent nonprofit charter.
In many ways, this Byzantine experience illustrates why the Center for Education Reform, a national research group that promotes publicly funded, independently operated campuses, gave Virginia’s charter law an F grade this year.
With no alternative authorizer available and no third-party appeal process, Virginia has proven inhospitable to charters, said Jeannie Allen, president of the Washington, D.C.-based CER.
“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,” she said.
Can Fairfax Leadership Academy buck the odds in the state’s largest school system?
Not in my backyard
When FLA organizers were looking for a campus location, district officials pointed them to Graham Elementary School in Falls Church. The district vacated the aging structure, but Welch quickly saw its potential.
FLA “could help the district as a public-private partner for investment and renovation,” he told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau.
What’s more, Welch said the area’s demographics align with FLA’s mission of serving underprivileged and low-income students.
“Our research shows the vast majority of students in that attendance zone received free and reduced lunches,” an indicator of low family income levels. “More than half of the kids have limited English proficiency,” Welch noted.
Welch’s findings were backed up by Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews, who decries the complete absence of charters in Northern Virginia.
But Fairfax County School Board member Patty Reed, who represents the area, said she’s now hearing constituent concerns that Graham isn’t the right site. Critics either don’t want to set the precedent of turning over a district building to a charter, or feel that another community — Reed suggests Annandale — would be a better location.
Welch maintains that Graham is a good fit.
Nearby “Falls Church High School says ‘we’re doing fine with these kids.’ But 25 percent of the region could use another model. They’re not graduating and they’re not going on to college,” he notes, citing data from the Virginia Department of Education.
Follow the money
Reed, one of 12 elected school board members, said she also has concerns about the “long-term financial viability” of the proposed charter. She and others say they worry that cash flow could become a problem, as it has at a few failed charters in other states.
Welch said discussions with district staff lead him to believe that Fairfax is willing — and legally obligated — to share any supplemental funding the system receives for at-risk, low-income students.
Still, state law —which says per-pupil funding at charters shall be “commensurate” with average per-pupil funding in the district — leaves room for school systems to maneuver.
“The law doesn’t say ‘equal,'” said Don Soifer, a Lexington Institute scholar who helped launch the Patrick Henry Charter School in Richmond.
Per-pupil funding in Fairfax County is $13,500, but the local board could legally offer FLA “a lowball funding level,” Soifer said.
“Ultimately, it’s up to the district to set the amount,” he said.
Whatever the figure, Welch said FLA’s budget would be bolstered by $250,000 in corporate and foundation funding and a $200,000 federal grant available to cover charter startup expenses
“Money goes with the students, but,” he added cautiously, “the board hasn’t weighed in on funding.”
Steve Greenburg, president of the local union Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said he is “baffled” that Reed and neighboring board member Sandy Evans are not on the district’s Charter School Review Committee.
“It does not facilitate transparency or community engagement to have them removed from the initial analysis of the viability of the charter,” said Greenburg, whose affiliate favors the school.
Evans declined to comment, and Reed said she is “remaining neutral” until more data are collected and more questions are answered.
“I hope we can work together to benefit at-risk students,” she said. But, in a revealing comment, Reed added that she sees a final vote “not just doing thumbs up or down, but a more nuanced review with some options. It’s not just a yea or nay. We can modify any way we want,” she said.
The other 11 members of the board have been careful not to express hard-and-fast positions on the charter, as they await the review committee report.
Yet in a bow to UPROAR — an anti-charter group from Falls Church High calling themselves United Parents for Renovating Our Academic Resource — Evans blogged earlier this year that she was mindful of “the potential impact that a 7-12 charter school so close to (Falls Church High) might have on that campus’s enrollment.
“The board will need to take those concerns into account, and I’ve asked FCPS (Fairfax County Public Schools) staff to do an impact assessment when the proposal comes to the board,” Evans wrote.
Red flags over Fairfax
Beyond the full-frontal attack by UPROAR, Reed’s “nuanced,” “anyway-we-want” philosophy could be equally unsettling for FLA. In football parlance, it’s tantamount to moving the goalposts — or removing them altogether.
Indeed, district officials didn’t do FLA any favors when they advised organizers to hold off on launching any public information campaign until the “groundwork” could be laid, Braunlich said.
“That gave opponents time to organize and for Falls Church parents to become concerned about departures from their school,” he noted.
But Braunlich said he doesn’t believe there would be anything approaching a mass exodus. After all, FLA’s maximum enrollment would be 450, and students could come from beyond the Falls Church attendance boundaries on a first-come, first-serve basis. Falls Church High has some 1,400 students.
“This charter won’t have a wide range of extracurriculars like sports, chorus, band, etc,” Braunlich said.
He calls the concerns a “red herring.”
Still, the district’s multilayered reviews, workshops, public comment sessions and recommendations invite a bureaucratic rigmarole that gives opponents, whatever their agenda, time to slow-jam the approval process.
“It would be nice to have people at the table who are voting on the proposal,” Welch said.
Union? Yes … and maybe
The Fairfax Leadership Academy does have one up-front and surprising ally: a teachers union. Typically, charters are anathema to unions, which consider them too flexible, too risky and, well, too anti-union.
Unions also argue that charters “take funding” from other public schools. But, as Welch said, the money simply follows the student.
The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers sees that — but is among FLA’s biggest supporters.
FCFT president Greenburg calls the Leadership Academy “exactly what a charter school should be. I would like to see more of this in the public system.”
Braunlich said the union’s backing comes without ulterior motives or hidden strings.
“Historically, its parent, the American Federation of Teachers, has been a curriculum-oriented teacher organization focused on at-risk kids,” he said.
“Teachers are buying in because this is primarily a teacher-led project,” said Welch, an instructor at J.E.B. Stuart High School.
“The charter’s philosophy is that everyone is a teacher — and that human and monetary resources are geared to the classroom.”
Besides, Virginia’s ban on mandatory union membership and collective bargaining curbs the clout of organized labor.
And Greenburg’s AFT affiliate isn’t the only game in town. The larger Fairfax Education Association and its politically powerful parent, the Virginia Education Association, have taken no position on the charter proposal, said VEA spokesman John O’Neil.
VEA’s policy on charters leaves room for accommodation with the local academy by stating that such schools “have the greatest potential for success when they are initiated and nurtured at the local level.”
But the union’s sweeping stipulation that “programs must have components to meet the needs of all students” clashes with FLA’s mission, which is tightly focused on an at-risk population.
More time on task
Fairfax teachers have been fighting for more time for instruction, and FLA says it will deliver.
Welch said the charter would add 23 days to the standard calendar, from 183 to 206 days, and add one hour and 15 minutes to each school day. By Virginia law, schools can extend their instructional time with the agreement of their staff.
“Over a year, that’s 30 percent more instructional time. Over six years, that’s a little more than a year of additional instruction,” Welch said.
Geared toward students — especially minorities, whose graduation rates are 10 to 20 percentage points lower than their white counterparts — FLA would have smaller class sizes with a maximum of 75 pupils per grade.
Kristen Amundson, a Fairfax board member from 1991 to 2000, said, “The school is actually focusing on many of the programs that Fairfax schools used to provide to at-risk students.” Due to budget cuts, the extended calendars and more intense focus on at-risk students has been curtailed or abolished at the regular schools, she said.
Flattening the organizational chart, while stretching its budget, all administrators at FLA would shoulder classroom teaching loads.
“Every adult in the building would teach. They would all be licensed and certified by the state,” Welch said.
Fairfax public schools administer two of the three battery of tests, but use only the Iowa algebra aptitude test, the district said.
First steps on a steep learning curve
While Fairfax School Board members remain officially neutral on FLA, district spokesman J.J. Torre outlined the “detailed process” being used to assess FLA’s application.
“The Charter School Review Committee has been reviewing the application (submitted May 30) to determine if it meets the local requirements for approval which include components such as the need for a charter school in Fairfax County, evidence of community support and a curriculum that is comparable to FCPS’,” said Torre.
“The committee has been working with FLA to obtain the information needed to make a recommendation to the school board.”
Torre said Superintendent Jack Dale will make a recommendation to the school board Sept 20. Following that, the board will conduct a public hearing on the application on Oct. 9 and a work session Oct. 15 “to consider the superintendent’s recommendation and community input.
“ The school board’s final vote is scheduled for Oct. 25,” Torre said.
Welch remains optimistic, but acknowledges the challenge of “local control.”
“District staff is working off a traditional model, so you have to go further to prove that untraditional is OK,” he said.
“There’s a learning curve that other counties and states have already gone through. Use of a district buildings and sharing funding sets precedents.”
And that leaves some to wonder about the ability, or willingness, of a sprawling system with 180,000 students enrolled at 196 campuses to just say yes to its first charter.
While “local control” sounds nice, Amundson, who now works for the reform-minded think tank, Education Sector, said the political control exercised by the school board can keep competition at bay.
“Forgive me if I’m skeptical. I’ve read this book before — and, sadly, I’m afraid I know how it’s likely to end,” she said.
Contact Kenric Ward at kenric@watchdogvirginia or at (571) 319-9824.