Even though national experts generally have given Virginia high marks for its Standards of Learning, those public schools at the bottom rungs of the achievement ladder continue to show little improvement 15 years after the SOL’s adoption.
While Virginia has a stronger foundation for public education than most states, there are undoubtedly many ways K-12 education could better serve all Virginia children by adding choices into the mix.
Since the SOL went into place, a charter-school movement has spread across the country, bringing close to 5,000 independently managed public schools (many of them with flexibility to innovate) to 40 states and the District of Columbia. However, in Virginia the movement has sparked precious few charters, and a relative dearth of high-quality charter school applications.
It is doubtful there will ever be a more propitious time for Virginia not only to join this movement but to become a national leader. Bob McDonnell has just become Governor after making charter schools a high priority in his campaign. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has made clear his administration’s strong support of charters as a central element of reform.
Nationally, diversity of political and educational philosophies is apparent where charters have thrived. These schools’ philosophies range from classical to progressive, from back-to-the-basics to project-based learning. Their missions may be to teach kids useful trade/technical skills or to prepare them to compete for places in the most selective institutions of higher education.
The university connection brings to mind a way for Virginia to showcase to the nation what charter schools can do to expand opportunity. The founder of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, was a strong proponent of public education as the cornerstone of a free society. Imagine Mr. Jefferson’s University becoming an authorizer and steward of tuition-free charter schools filling in gaps in the 21st Century’s educational system.
With inspired lawmaking by the 2010 General Assembly, that could happen.
The Old Dominion has had a charter school law since 1998, but its restrictive design has discouraged many qualified prospects from enduring the rigors of the application process. The most serious problem is that local school boards have the exclusive authority to approve and supervise new charter schools.
Even school board members who recognize the educational benefits of high-quality charter schools often have been deterred by the time, cost, and expertise required to become a responsible and effective charter authorizer. Tight school district budgets often make the application process confrontational, with parents who support a new charter and others with different priorities squaring off. Such challenges are even harder to overcome in smaller school districts.
A better option would allow a trusted institution to serve as a secondary, alternate authorizer. The University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education would be a natural choice for this role, given that it already possesses much of the expertise needed to be a high-quality reviewer, approver, and supervisor for new charters seeking to go outside the standard school-board route. Researchers have found that jurisdictions with the strongest charter school oversight have produced the most effective charter schools, especially those that focus on closing measurable achievement gaps with poor and minority children.
In states that are home to the nation’s highest-performing charter schools, education experts at public universities ensure academic excellence and responsible governance. Central Michigan University’s Center for Charter Schools is widely considered the finest university authorizer. It oversees one-fourth of the charter schools located throughout Michigan.
It could well be that school districts where numbers of students opt to move to a university-authorized charter school should be accorded some fiscal flexibility enabling them to maintain stability amid fluctuation in student populations.
Additional obstacles could be cleared away in order to attract more high-quality charter school applications. For example, successful charter school leaders usually describe their ability to hire and fire their school’s teachers, administrators, and staff as one of their most effective operational tools. In Virginia, charters currently are not given such crucial autonomy; they must defer to their school district’s personnel office on all such decisions.
Charter schools supplement traditional public education; they do not supplant it. They offer new options for children who have struggled in regular schools and could benefit from non-conventional approaches. They are free and open to all. And their successes can provide models for change within the larger system. In short, they represent an approach consistent with the Jeffersonian dream of universal education.
Find Archived Articles: