Virginia’s Senate Democrats and a small number of Republicans earlier this spring defeated legislation making it easier to build more quality charter schools. This may prove most costly for Virginia’s military families, who will have to wait longer for quality choices to meet their pressing educational needs.
Virginia has the highest concentration of military dependents. There are over 71,500 school age, military-connected children of active duty service members in the commonwealth.
Of the top 10 states with the most military-connected families, Virginia ranks ninth in the number of military dependents attending charter schools, only ahead of a state that until last year had no charter law at all. This, despite the fact that military leaders want charter schools, and particularly the opportunity to open charter schools on bases. Charter schools on military bases are proving to be a winning strategy — both for military and civilian families.
There are nine on-base charters nationally. Base commanders are able to make resources available, including school buildings and grounds, and often make arrangements to allow attendance by nearby non-military families.
Why so few charters in Virginia — and none specifically for military families? The current charter law is difficult to navigate, and it offers limited operating autonomy. Only local school boards, which have minimal experience, expertise or inclination, can approve charters.
Understanding the challenges facing military families helps a school to meet their educational needs.
Certain aspects of military life can’t easily be accommodated by a traditional public school. The average military-connected student will transition to a different school more than twice during the high school years; and over an entire educational career, military children will attend six to nine different systems from kindergarten to 12th grade. This is made worse by the frequently poor communication between local school districts and military leadership.
Relocations don’t follow a school calendar and often don’t coincide with extracurricular activities. Frequently, when military students arrive in Virginia, special district academy schools are full and the Virginia Governor’s Schools’ deadlines have passed. Special programs are often impossible to get into mid-year or even during the summer, when up to 80 percent of military families relocate.
Charters can be more flexible with programming, as well as offer supportive initiatives like supplemental remedial or enrichment courses, specific counseling, and other offerings to meet the specific needs of military family mobility. The singular challenges facing military families take understanding to serve well, something that can be done more easily with nimble, quality charters.
Military families are choosing long commutes, homeschooling, private education, or living apart rather than enrolling children in under-performing schools, or schools that aren’t meeting their unusual needs. As any military family will attest, the quality of education plays a large part in military retention and family dynamics.
Far fewer military-connected children attend Norfolk Public Schools than are eligible, for example, likely due in part to the more than 50 percent of Norfolk schools that have lost accreditation. Base housing all around Virginia is being leased to private citizens because military families will not live on base if they have to attend the local schools.
Laws that make it easier to open high-quality charter schools in Virginia, including on military bases should leaders choose that option, would be an important way to help meet the educational challenges facing the thousands of military students in Hampton Roads.
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