Article published in The Roanoke (VA) Times
While serving as Mayor of Richmond, Tim Kaine was a strong supporter of regional Governor’s Schools that enroll some of the most academically able students in Virginia.
As he takes office as Governor, Virginia’s strong tradition of Governor’s Schools and other magnet schools will deserve his continued support. However, another kind of special public school – grossly underutilized in Virginia so far – will also merit his strong backing: the charter school.
Charter schools have proven particularly adept across the nation at helping children who are not candidates for Governor’s Schools, notably those categorized as “at risk” or underachieving.
What is a charter school? While more than 3,600 of them have been established across the nation since the early 1990s as part of the school-reform movement, Virginia has less than a half dozen; therefore, the average Virginian may have little familiarity with them. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition:
Charter school: “a tax-supported school established by a charter between a granting body (as a school board) and an outside group (as of teachers and parents) which operates the school without most local and state educational regulations so as to achieve set goals.”
In other words, a charter school is a public school but one granted some flexibility to try different or targeted approaches in exchange for delivering sound, agreed-upon results. The exemptions, which themselves are fewer in Virginia than in other states, are from bureaucratic red tape, not from laws protecting health, safety, and civil rights.
Virginia’s charter schools must still meet Standards of Learning requirements, even though all of our current charters are designed for the educational needs of at-risk children, who have often already stumbled academically elsewhere. And charter schools are open to all, and may not charge tuition.
So how come there are so few in the Old Dominion, while the charter movement is booming around the nation? In the recent gubernatorial campaign, both Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Jerry Kilgore said they supported the idea of charter schools. Virginia’s last Governor, Mark Warner, also supports charter schools. And the past two sessions of the General Assembly have taken steps to improve the state’s 1998 charter-school law in ways intended to make the process of securing a charter from a local school board less formidable.
The inescapable snag is that local school boards, generally, have been cool to charter-school applicants, if not downright hostile. Some have adopted procedures for reviewing applications that the best charter schools in the country would have a hard time passing.
In states with strong charter-school movements, applicants such as coalitions of teachers and parents may seek charters from other authorities, such as state boards of education or state charter-school boards. Or they may appeal adverse local-board decisions to courts or to higher executive authorities.
In Virginia, the assumption has been that local school boards have absolute veto power over school charters under the 1972 state Constitution. But that doesn’t have to be the final answer. Governor Kaine and the General Assembly could make charter schools become a reality by authorizing Virginia’s public universities to charter K-12 schools.
Imagine the possibilities for good. Virginia Commonwealth University, which has a large and vibrant teacher-training school, could charter a school in inner-city Richmond and put its resources into making it a model school for disadvantaged children, as well as a laboratory for aspiring young teachers. Such a school could augment the commendable efforts of Governor Warner to turn around schools falling short of state and federal educational standards.
This could dovetail with the support current Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder has given to the opening next fall of a public charter school devoted to rescuing learning-disabled elementary pupils and making them at least grade-level achievers by middle school. It will be modeled after Park Place School, which started as a private school in Norfolk but is transitioning to charter status to expand its work.
Other public colleges or universities, from Virginia Military Institute to some of the Commonwealth’s historically black colleges, could bring considerable educational value by chartering their own K-12 schools.
Such charter schools in other states count among the nation’s finest. Central Michigan University, for example, governs nearly 60 charter schools widely known as the gold standard with regard to students’ academic achievement, diversity and success. New York’s state university system has also produced fine charters.
Virginians, who have long prided themselves on their first-class public colleges and universities, could enhance the educational future of their young people as a whole by enlisting higher education in the noble task of K-12 reform.
Robert Holland and Don Soifer are education analysts with the Lexington Institute in Arlington.
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