Virginians face an important opportunity in 2016, one which may broaden high quality educational options for families across the commonwealth. Their approval — first by the legislature and subsequently in the voting booth this November — of a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the state Board of Education to authorize public charter schools, positions the public education system to harness for their benefit the best of 20 years of charter school evolution nationally.
Because Virginia opted to sit out the early years of the charter school movement, it avoided the growing pains of a new governance model learning to manage its strengths. Nationally, research indicates that the most successful charter schools generally operate in jurisdictions where the combination of legal framework and effectiveness of charter oversight are best equipped to support high-quality schools. The state Board of Education would have the opportunity to develop this capacity where local school boards do not feel ready or equipped to do so themselves.
Current state charter school law, passed in 1998, offers only local school divisions the authority to approve charters. This has predictably led to just a smattering of charter schools around the commonwealth, operating without access to most of the autonomies that allow charters in other states to thrive. None of Virginia’s charters, for example, can hire their own teachers or principals, or even manage their own bank accounts; they must rely on their local school district administration for that.
Around the country, many of the most famous and successful public charter schools in the nation serve urban populations, but charters thrive in suburban and rural communities as well. Charter schools tend to be smaller, and many families find that a more intimate learning environment — giving educators the chance to better know each learner — makes it easier for their children to reach their potential.
A specific educational mission resides at the heart of any charter school’s program. In Virginia, charter school students take the Standards of Learning tests as do all public school students, and the schools must provide a curriculum aligned with state content standards. But flexibility from certain school district procedures and rules allows charters the opportunity to structure that work around a specialized program chosen by their community.
Character and civics education, arts-infused learning models, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs and curricula built around classic books allow different charter schools to develop unique learning communities that draw strong interest. A charter school must accept all students without any entrance requirements, and waiting lists are quite common.
When the nation’s first charter school legislation was passed a quarter-century ago, it was spearheaded by teachers. Decision-making, its authors thought, had become too bureaucratic, too centralized. Who better to make decisions about how best to serve students than the people who worked with them on a daily basis? As a result, public charter schools were originally created by career educators who felt that students’ needs were best served when decisions could be made close to home. Charter schools were originally conceptualized to be centers of innovation in education, and even relatively high-performing suburban school divisions could benefit from this kind of approach.
All children can learn. But in Virginia, too few are reaching their potential. Choosing from the most successful of the nation’s innovative charter school models seems a path worth opening.
A recent poll has indicated that a strong majority of Virginia’s voters favor opening more charter schools. The more knowledge and experience Virginians have with charter schools, the more likely they are to want more of them.
Twenty years ago, Henrico County Public Schools established “specialty centers” in its high schools. The county touts the centers as having an emphasis on academic rigor, employing highly trained teachers with access to advanced technology, and providing a broader range of choice for students. On its surface, the description is not dissimilar to that of a public charter school, except that the specialty centers are academically selective and serve small subsets of their schools’ populations.
This sort of innovation, open to a much greater proportion of the student population, could spur a renaissance in Virginia’s already highly ranked public schools.
Find Archived Articles: