For supporters (and opponents) of public charter schools, Virginia’s 2016 General Assembly session attracted a great deal of attention to proposed legislation, authored by Senator Mark Obenshain, which sought to allow the state board of education to approve new charter schools by amending the state’s constitution. That measure fell short when it was blocked by two rural Republican Senators, after passing the House of Delegates.
But an important set of changes to Virginia’s charter school law did pass into law, making major updates and revisions to the charter school application process. The changes were sponsored by Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter, whose common-sense leadership has driven other improvements to Virginia’s charter school laws in recent years.
Later this month, the Virginia Board of Education is scheduled to begin reviewing draft regulations to implement these changes, which should bring the application requirements for new charter schools in Virginia much more into line with widely-accepted best practices for high-quality charter school governance based on the experiences of other states. These new requirements should strengthen charter school applications received, providing more focus on essential planning elements.
One major change is that, upon approval, charter school leaders will now negotiate terms of a formal contract by which the school will operate and be evaluated. Prior to this change, the law directed that an approved charter application became the operating contract exclusively, an arrangement that had been common across the nation’s earlier charter school laws. It proved overly restrictive to both parties, and far from ideal, leaving a degree of murkiness surrounding operations and evaluation of new charter schools. This two-step process allows for greater clarity in roles, responsibilities, and accountability.
The required elements of a charter school application were also updated in ways viewed as essential to operating high-performing charter schools in other states. The new application requirements establish clear academic and performance expectations to guide local school boards’ subsequent evaluations of school performance.
These include student academic proficiency on Standards of Learning assessments, as well as the even more important measure of academic growth of each student over time, evaluated in disaggregated fashion by factors including gender, race, as well as poverty, special education and English language learner status.
Student attendance and annual re-enrollment and postsecondary education readiness of high school students will now be considered critical measures for which charter schools must demonstrate success.
The changes also require charter school applications to address integral aspects of their academic and operational program. Charter school applications in Virginia must now include specific elements including: descriptions of instructional design and teaching methods, proposed governing bylaws, student discipline policies, and a number of core operational and financial details.
Some elements of the new approach were adapted from models developed by the National Association for Public Charter Schools, and are aligned with research on demonstrated best practices across the nation’s charter school sector.
The changes should prove especially helpful to local school divisions, which generally lack experience and expertise with charter school oversight. While these changes can be expected to improve Virginia’s charter school application process, it seems unlikely that a substantially more robust charter school movement will develop as long as local school divisions hold the exclusive authority to approve and supervise charter schools.
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