In the coming weeks, Virginia lawmakers will decide whether to change the state’s education laws to allow a new movement of high-quality public charter schools to open their doors.
Virginia has allowed charters since 1998, but despite some improvements, the legal and operating framework remains hostile, and today only three of Virginia’s nearly 1,900 public schools are charter schools.
Virginians note with pride the state’s historic role as a leader for quality public education. In the past two decades, Virginia has earned a reputation for its willingness to undertake bold reform with the implementation of the Standards of Learning and Standards of Quality. But in recent years, the commonwealth has lost substantial ground in both of these areas.
As its reform momentum has slowed in recent years, Virginia students have slipped backward toward national averages for student achievement, and pernicious minority achievement gaps have grown, not only in cities but in suburbs as well.
Two in five black eighth-graders here scored at woeful “below basic” levels in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) last year, while only one in six of their white classmates did. The record for on-time graduation rates reveals even wider gaps between black and Latino students and their white classmates. Passing rates for the Standards of Learning told a similar story.
Nationally, charters have proven to be especially effective in such areas as reversing minority achievement gaps and raising graduation rates, where they are well-suited for Virginia’s current challenges. Virginia is in the enviable position of being able to draw from the best practices of top-performing charter schools to add new options with proven track records at addressing particular educational needs.
“In order for Virginia students to have the skills needed to compete in a global economy, our educators need to have every available tool to help them improve achievement and try innovative approaches, and today that means having enhanced options to use charter schools,” observes James Dyke, who served as Gov. L. Douglas Wilder’s secretary of education.
Interest in charter schools has continued to grow across Virginia, and the number of high-quality charter applications has increased. These currently include promising charter school projects in counties including Rockbridge, Fairfax, Prince Edward and Loudoun.
Charters are contracts between the school and its authorizing agency, where students’ academic performance targets are agreed upon in exchange for limited autonomy and a bargained-down share of the per-pupil funding.
Because Virginia’s laws offer charters little operational autonomy, and no guarantee of funding levels on which to project future years’ budgets, relatively few serious applicants have chosen to make the investment of time and resources required to produce a high-quality charter plan.
Currently, Virginia is one of very few states where only local school boards have the authority to open and close charters. This arrangement tends to make charter deliberations needlessly confrontational, political and reliant on district office staff lacking in charter school experience. A system where charter school applicants have multiple paths to approval offers numerous advantages, and helps deter school districts from rejecting charters as a matter of policy.
Many of the nation’s most famous charter schools have achieved their success with college preparatory schools in urban settings. But quality charters come in all shapes and sizes.
Blended online learning programs that integrate class time at computers with traditional classroom teaching are demonstrating remarkable efficiency of instruction and could be particularly effective serving families on Virginia’s military installations. The strong character education program offered by Michigan’s National Heritage Academies schools could appeal to many Virginia families.
Effective charter schools can be homegrown as well, and programs like Charlottesville-based Core Knowledge schools or Richmond’s highly successful Patrick Henry Charter School of Science and Arts could also provide valuable models.
There has been consensus among the recommendations of charter school experts and leaders when asked what Virginia would need to change to enable them to succeed here. These recommendations include:
- Empower the state board of education to review and approve charters. Alternately, a meaningful appeals process for opening and closing decisions would ensure charter leaders (and philanthropists) that their continued operation would depend more on their results than on local budget or political dynamics.
- Allow autonomy for charters to select, hire and manage their own employees.
- Provide equitable funding for charter students, and access to vacant school buildings.
Ultimately, the success in making Virginia a friendly environment for high-performing charter schools will depend heavily on the details of the plan and how it is implemented. But for now, these next steps will be the most critical.s its reform momentum has slowed in recent years, Virginia students have slipped backward toward national averages for student achievement, and pernicious minority achievement gaps have grown, not only in cities but in suburbs as well.
Don Soifer is Executive Vice President of the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan think tank headquartered in Arlington, VA.