By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
RICHMOND — Snubbing their national party’s position, Virginia Democrats killed a charter-school bill in the state Senate and threaten to quash similar reform measures.
The 2012 Democratic platform declared the party would “work to expand public school options for low-income youth, including charter schools.”
But Democrats at the General Assembly continue to resist expansion of the publicly funded, independently operated charter campuses.
With only four charter schools, Virginia has received failing grades from the Center for Education Reform and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools for its charter-averse policies. (See story here.)
Democratic opposition on Monday killed SJ 302, a constitutional amendment that would allow the State Board of Education to authorize more charters.
The irony was not lost on Chris Braunlich, a state board member and former member of the Fairfax County School Board.
“Offering better education through quality public charter schools has long been a priority of the Obama administration, so it’s striking that this was a straight party-line vote — Republicans stood with Obama and for more educational opportunities for at-risk children; Democrats stood opposed,” Braunlich told Watchdog.org.
While a growing number of states — including blue states — allow multiple authorizers of charter schools, “local control” remains a stumbling block to education competition and choice in the commonwealth.
The Virginia School Boards Association opposes any expansion of charter authority beyond local districts.
In a position paper, the VSBA states: “There should be no changes to the charter school law unless initiated by local school boards through the VSBA and there should be no appeal allowed to any entity.”
Braunlich said, “Admittedly, Virginia enjoys a reputation of having a superior public education system, but there are significant pockets where the public education system has simply imploded, where a quarter of students do not graduate and where schools languish for years without full accreditation.
“Without a constitutional amendment enabling the creation of new public charter schools, any plan to improve education in those areas will be dependent on those who created the problem in the first place, and who have allowed a generation of children to fall by the wayside.”
A House measure similar to Harrisonburg Republican Sen. Mark Obenshain’s SJ 302 remains in play.
HJ 684, patroned by Delegate Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, cleared the House Constitutional Amendments Subcommittee on a 4-2 vote. But because that tally also was along party lines, its fate remains doubtful.
In another ironic twist, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, abstained from Monday’s Senate vote. Yet Petersen isn’t necessarily opposed to charter schools.
In fact, he supports the proposed Fairfax Leadership Academy, a charter school that has been seeking local school board approval for more than a year. An aide to Petersen said the senator abstained from Monday’s vote because he provides legal counsel to the FLA. Petersen was not available for comment Tuesday.
FLA, aimed at serving at-risk students in the state’s largest school district, is also supported by the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers.
“We support it because it’s teacher-directed and helps at-risk kids,” said FCFT president Steve Greenburg.
While more Democrats across the country are backing charters as “social justice” alternatives for impoverished and academically at-risk children stuck in dysfunctional districts, Greenburg said not all charter proposals are commendable.
“You have to be cautious about motives. We want to be efficient with taxpayer funding,” he said.
Assessing the loss of Obenshain’s bill, Braunlich said, “While other proposals may pass and are always helpful, because of our constitutional restrictions, they’re unlikely to create the kind of systemic change that would offer new educational opportunities to public school students.”
Contact Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward