The past week has been a good one for charter schools. Barack Obama proclaimed his support for this innovative public school model, promising to double funding for the federal Public Charter Schools program. Last week, John McCain underscored his commitment to charters as a valuable option for children stuck in chronically underperforming public schools.
Such enthusiasm by the two Presidential candidates is good news for the 1.2 million children who attend 4,100 charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia. It may be even better news for the 365,000 children that the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools estimates are on charter waiting lists around the country. All charter schools are open to any child in the school district, free of charge, with no admissions requirement.
In Virginia, however, students will probably have to wait somewhat longer before seeing the benefits themselves. Virginia currently has only four charter schools statewide. Of the handful of school districts in which applications have been submitted, only a few have demonstrated the willingness, and wherewithal, to give charter authorization serious consideration.
Albemarle County, which last month became the first district in the commonwealth to open two charter schools simultaneously, has led by example. The Community Public Charter School in Charlottesville is a middle school offering an arts-infused curriculum and an emphasis on literacy, in a more intimate learning environment. It joins Murray High School, which opened its doors in Albemarle in 2001, and today teaches 108 students with an innovative approach emphasizing student responsibility.
Earlier this month, the Richmond school board voted to reject the contract its own staff negotiated for a new charter school approved by the board in May. This vote may signal trouble for the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, which is to be housed in a closed school building in South Richmond’s Woodland Heights neighborhood.
As schools of choice, charter schools are inherently accountable to parents, who may withdraw their children at any time. Senator Obama stressed the importance of maintaining accountability for charters. The 17-year history of charter schools has demonstrated that responsible administration of charter schools must include shutting down schools that fail to maintain agreed-upon, bottom-line standards for academic achievement, safety, or school management.
Of the various reasons why the charter school movement has developed slowly in Virginia, perhaps the most significant is a restrictive state law that allows only local school boards to authorize charters. In states with stronger charter movements, education laws permit multiple chartering authorities, giving applicants an option when school boards prove unwilling to consider them seriously. Proposals have been introduced in Virginia’s legislature in each of the past two sessions to allow public universities to serve as charter authorizers, a system that has proven successful in other states, most notably in Michigan. Another approach could be to establish a new, statewide school district consisting of only charter schools, which could be overseen by state officials.
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