By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — As the nation kicks off National School Choice Week on Sunday, the Old Dominion has received a flunking grade for its charter school environment — again.
The Center for Education Reform, which grades each state on an A-F scale in its annual Charter School Law Report Card, gave Virginia a flat-out F in its 2013 report, placing it second-to-last in the nation behind only Missouri out of the 42 states with charter school laws.
Virginia, with just four charter schools serving fewer than 400 of the commonwealth’s 1.3 million K-12 students, finished second-to-last in the 2012 report.
But the Center for Education Reform isn’t the only organization to give Virginia low rankings for its charter school environment. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked the Old Dominion 37 out of the 42 states with charter school laws.
But those poor grades won’t change unless the state constitution does, said Chris Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, a Virginia public policy think tank.
“The problem is that the fix to this is not strictly a legislative fix,” Braunlich told Watchdog.org. “There are provisions in the state constitution that say very specifically that the supervision of public schools is in the hands of the local school board.”
Virginia’s constitution says the “supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board,” a phrase Virginia courts have time and time again interpreted to mean that only local school divisions can decide the fate of a charter school. Of course, that becomes problematic, Braunlich said, because the whole point of a charter school is to run independently of the typical public school system. And there’s only one real way to fix that, said Braunlich, a former board member of Fairfax County Public Schools.
“It often means you can’t have an alternate charter authorized, unless you amend the constitution,” Said Braunlich. “Ultimately, the way to do this is by amending the constitution.”
And while his proposal isn’t the Legislature’s first attempt, Delegate Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, is trying to do just that with a bill filed this month. HJ 693 would take the first step toward a constitutional amendment establishing a statewide school division to oversee charter schools — but only if they are first turned down by local school divisions. Habeeb did not immediately respond for comment.
“Supervision of the statewide school division is to be vested in a single statewide school board established as may be provided by law,” the proposed law reads.
Barbara Coyle, executive director for the Virginia School Boards Association, said the status quo law affords enough opportunities for charter schools to start and flourish, since the localities, rather than the state, decide what is best for local students.
“I think it’s a good process,” Coyle said. “I think it’s a cautious process that offers a procedure that looks out for the best interest of the children.”
But it’s independence from local school divisions that makes charter schools generally more successful and economical, said Joy Pullmann, a research fellow in education for the free-market-oriented Heartland Institute.
“I think the biggest benefit to them is the flexibility that it gives,” Pullmann said. “So, a school can say, we want to be a Montessori school, and it can still be a public school. So, it attracts a group of families who share a common mission rather than trying to accommodate the different, express demands of all these different populations in the same district. And that flexibility also extends to the way that the school does its finances, and especially to its teacher contracts, which is really important.”
Essentially, the success or failure of a state’s charter schools depends on the authorizing body or bodies, the group of people who volunteer to oversee and administer a charter school, Pullmann said. An “authorizer” is whatever body the state law allows to oversee, but not operate, charter schools.
The more authorizers a state has, the better, said Jim Goenner, president and CEO of the Michigan-based National Charter Schools Institute. States with more authorizers consistently perform better in national rankings, he said.
“It’s just like schools,” Goenner said. “It’s the idea that there’s choice in options and that some healthy competition makes everybody better.”
In that sense, even Habeeb’s proposal to add a new, overarching school division isn’t ideal, Goenner said.
“If you’re talking (about) Virginia, if your only authorizing bodies are local school districts that are not chartering anything, a state appeals process is a benefit,” Goenner told Watchdog.org. “But I’m personally not a fan of it — if somebody turns you down as a school and you appeal, then they’re forced to work with you. We believe that better authorizing happens by choice.”
But even if Virginia passes a constitutional amendment — which requires the House and Senate to approve it over two legislative cycles, plus a favorable vote of the people in a ballot measure — the charter school quandary won’t be solved completely, Braunlich said. Direct state funding for education isn’t sufficient to fund any school, so localities would probably have to pitch in, too.
“The funds would have to come from locally, but that creates the argument of OK, now you’re taking the money from the locality to put money in the charter school that the locality has no control over,” Braunlich said. “There’s a whole range of issues.”
In other words, it isn’t something that will be solved overnight.
To create successful charter schools, Goenner said, lawmakers, parents and other leaders have to think of charter schools as a verb, not a noun.
“I think one of the most important things is that people focus on chartering as an idea,” Goenner said. “And that the idea originally … is that chartering was an approach, a strategy if you will, for states, and specifically the legislatures and the governors, to remove the exclusive franchise that they’d given school districts, so that somebody else besides the district could create a new public school and that they didn’t operate it.”
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