From the Winchester Star
Most would agree that the opportunities in life for children depend on the quality of educational opportunities they receive.
Governor McAuliffe, in his first State of the Commonwealth address, spoke about achieving greater equality of opportunity across Virginia. Three years later in too many schools across the state, and especially in a few school divisions, students of color and in poverty continue to face a devastating inequality of opportunity as measured by academic outcomes.
In a few days, McAuliffe will have the chance to fully embrace the spirit of his words by signing important legislation greatly improving the academic opportunities for students of color and in poverty.
The plan, sponsored by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and Del. Steve Landes, R-Verona, will open Virginia to quality, innovative public charter schools focused on improving the prospects of students who are being ill-served by their current schools and who have been historically underserved by Virginia’s public schools.
Sixty years ago there was massive resistance to integrating Virginia’s public schools. While the battle for access has been won, the battle for success has not; in some schools, going to school does not result in meaningful educational outcomes.
If there is no reasonable chance in achieving a desirable outcome — improving academic results and graduation rates — is opportunity really being provided? Or is it being systematically denied?
When the state puts together its list of the lowest-performing schools — those in the bottom five percent of all schools statewide on reading and mathematics performance on the SOL exams — half come from just two districts: Richmond and Norfolk. And a majority of schools that have had their accreditation denied come from just five districts (again including Richmond and Norfolk).
To be sure, funding and support have been provided to these schools and districts over the years. In fact, Virginia received almost $16 million from the federal government to help address its lowest performing five percent of schools in just the last two years.
But funding is not enough to produce transformative results. It is what is done with funding that can produce a more equal and successful educational system. Providing more funds to failing schools has been a staple of educational improvement strategy in Virginia and nationally. But these improvement and “turn-around” efforts have largely failed. A recent federal study of federal funding provided to failing schools found that the funding produced no academic gains for the students in schools receiving the funds.
The new plan — if signed by McAuliffe — will encourage the creation of new, public charter schools that are controlled by local citizens but can be affiliated with successful models like Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and Summit Public Schools. The trustees of the regional charter school boards with the authority to approve new schools would be appointed by the governing boards of the local school divisions and by the State Board of Education, to ensure local support.
These schools could only be created in districts with more than 3,000 students and where there are schools with years of academic failure. And, the new schools would only receive state funding, so local dollars would not be redirected.
This is a targeted, common-sense solution that would provide parents without the means to move or pay private-school tuition to pick an alternative option that would provide a better chance of success and greater equality of opportunity, without negatively impacting local school divisions.
Unlike the existing turn-around efforts that have made minimal progress, public charter schools have been repeatedly shown by nationally prominent research institutions like Stanford, Mathematica and others, to be capable of successfully closing achievement gaps for students of color, English language learners, and students in poverty.
Equality of opportunity — and the chance for success in life — should not depend on winning the zip-code lottery. If there is no real opportunity for success, then we are consigning students to failure before they have even gotten started in life.
Virginia Democrats have never supported charter schools, a puzzling quandary because they were a favorite equity vehicle of President Bill Clinton’s administration. Mr.McAuliffe should follow the courageous, bipartisan leadership of Chap Petersen, the only Democratic Virginia state senator to support the legislation, by signing the new proposal and providing a new era of equality of opportunity in the Old Dominion.
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