Following Governor McAuliffe’s announcement last month that his administration would not appeal the court ruling that Virginia’s fledgling Opportunity Education Institution (OEI) is unconstitutional, advocates for public charter schools in the commonwealth will need to look elsewhere for opportunities to grow the sector.
The OEI, a statewide school division created by legislation in 2013 to take over persistently failing schools, was modeled largely on the Recovery School District of Louisiana and Achievement School District of Tennessee. These statewide school divisions have been responsible for converting perennially underperforming schools to high-performing charters, by contracting with grass roots and nationally established charter school operators focused on school turnaround.
With only six public charter schools serving no more than 725 students — or about six one-hundredths of 1 percent of Virginia’s public school population — Virginia is frequently cited among the nation’s most intractable policy environments for charters. Even its current charter schools have much less operational and decision-making autonomy than charters in other states.
Public charter schools are open to all students within the school district in which they operate, charge no tuition and are governed by a local management committee.
While charters nationally have enjoyed bipartisan support in many jurisdictions, most charter-friendly legislation in Virginia has been championed by Republicans, with very limited Democratic support. This challenging environment has roots in the longstanding tensions that grew out of the Massive Resistance movement of the late 1950s, when “school choice” was invoked as a vehicle for racial separatism.
Today, Virginia’s traditionally highly ranked public school system is listed at or near the top one-quarter in the nation. Nonetheless, achievement gaps persist in the commonwealth between white students and students of color, those of disparate socioeconomic strata and native English speakers and English Language Learners.
It is with these most underserved populations that innovative charter school models have shown some of their greatest impact. Indeed, many of the most successful charter schools and networks across the country specialize in measurably accelerating growth for students whose skills are below grade level.
Research on charter schools’ impact nationally has produced unclear conclusions. Charter schools in different states operate under widely varying rules, and research has consistently demonstrated that those that operate in jurisdictions with effective oversight authorities, or authorizers, produce the strongest student outcomes.
Virginia’s present system, in which only local school boards have such authority, is not found among this group. Charter advocates have called for a variety of policy shifts to improve the operating climate for charters in Virginia, the most fundamental of which is the creation of charter authorizers other than the local school divisions. Increased autonomy, equity in funding and facilities access and longer charter contracts represent the sort of “across the board” policy improvement consistent with the frameworks in states where charters have demonstrated the most convincing performance records.
Until such policy changes are made, however, Virginia may yet be able to spur meaningful growth in the charter sector. But this will require boldness from those in positions of leadership, from superintendents and school boards, to state policymakers and university leaders. They might consider:
• Regional charter schools: While local school boards are solely responsible for public schools in Virginia, multidistrict charters are expressly allowed in the legislation. Consequently, a coalition of districts could elect to collaborate on the authorization of one or more charter schools to address common educational needs.
• Attract proven charter management organizations as “Lead Turnaround Partners”: Virginia’s Department of Education currently requires local districts to contract with a “Lead Turnaround Partner” to intervene in “Priority,” or persistently failing, schools. With roughly one-third of the lowest performing schools in Virginia, Richmond Public Schools could be an appealing partner for a charter operator with a history of success in school turnaround. But top operators are in high demand nationally, and Virginia would need to compete with other states offering higher per-pupil funding and greater operating autonomy.
• Tap into Virginia’s higher education: At the University of Virginia, the Curry School of Education and Darden School of Business have created a school turnaround program. In other states, charter school offices at the State University of New York and Central Michigan University have emerged as among the nation’s most effective charter school authorizers. Virginia’s public higher education institutions would also be well-suited to sponsor quality charter schools.
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