What Charter School Excellence Can Offer Virginia

Author(s): Don Soifer
Posted in: Education

Richmond Times-Dispatch

What educational benefits do the nation’s top-performing public charter schools have to offer Virginia? And what should be done, if anything, to attract them here?

These were among the questions discussed recently when the state Board of Education invited a panel of national charter school leaders and experts to a public hearing in Richmond.

Virginia has one of the stronger public education systems in the country, and our Standards of Learning are widely considered to be among the nation’s best. Excellence is not hard to find in Virginia’s public schools, but so are significant achievement gaps, particularly for black and Latino students. As measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the test known as the Nation’s Report Card, Virginia’s fourth and eighth graders generally rank in the top one-fourth of states. But while our results have improved gradually over the past decade, one in five Virginia students continues to score at deplorable “below basic” achievement levels in reading and math.

Nationally, over 1.5 million children attend nearly 5,000 charter schools in 39 states. But Virginia currently has only two, with a third, the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, scheduled to open in Richmond this August.

Charter schools are public schools that are granted special flexibility to innovate and freedom from many school district rules and policies in exchange for maintaining agreed-upon levels of academic results. They are different from Virginia’s Governor’s Schools or magnet schools because they are prohibited from using selective admissions policies – any child living in the school district may attend, and waiting lists are resolved by open lottery. They do not charge tuition.

Nearby in the District of Columbia, 95 charter school campuses educate more than 28,000 students, as several speakers at last week’s hearing noted. All families there are free to choose from a broad array of innovative, high-performing schools. Many offer specialized learning approaches, such as a classical or public-policy infused, Montessori, or rigorous college-preparatory curriculum.

But while well-established charter school communities like the District’s rededicate themselves to the challenges of raising their achievement levels, Virginia finds itself in the advantageous position of being able to study what works in other jurisdictions and select only the best-proven and most promising charter school models to meet our own educational challenges.

Attracting top charters will likely require policy changes as well. Currently in Virginia, only local school boards have the authority to approve charters, and only then with serious restrictions on their operating autonomy. Virginia charter school leaders, for instance, are not given the authority to hire and replace teachers and administrators as they do in other states, and instead must rely on their school district’s central office to handle personnel matters for them. Most successful charter leaders consider this ability among their most essential tools for attaining, and maintaining, educational excellence.

Also in Virginia, although the “charter” itself is a contract between a school board and charter school leaders, school boards may terminate the agreement anytime and without cause, even if the charter is living up to their end of the bargain. These precarious terms make it difficult for Virginia charters to raise the substantial fundraising dollars that high-performing charters in other states are able to rely on. It even makes it difficult for them to secure the financing other charters use to build or develop first-rate buildings and facilities that are best suited to their educational model.

Even local school boards who are interested in giving them serious consideration have frequently lacked both experience with charters and expertise to ensure smooth implementation. Tight education budgets across the commonwealth mean that school districts unfamiliar with charters become defensive and even confrontational when it comes to “sharing resources” with proposed charter schools, even though the charters are shouldering the full education responsibility for teaching student populations with above-average numbers of poor or minority children. Combined, these obstacles present major challenges for even the highest-quality charter school applicants.

On the other hand, Virginia enjoys a wealth of educational resources, such as the expertise housed at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and other highly-regarded higher education institutions. Their leadership could prove extremely valuable as Virginia develops the charter school authorizing capabilities needed to assure that charter schools live up to the excellence we will require of them.