Article Published in the Norfolk Virginia-Pilot
This article appeared in 7 newspapers around Virginia.
In delivering the Republicans’ national radio address on Memorial Day, Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore touted how fellow GOP Governors are using choice, and particularly charter schools, to advance education reform and improve pupil performance nationwide. We can only hope this means Virginia soon will propel itself from laggard to leader in this movement.
Governor Gilmore can ensure his legacy as an education governor by not only staying the course on standards-based reform begun under George Allen, but also by injecting even more vigor into the initiative by embracing marketplace options, such as charter schools.
Charter schools are independently run public schools open to all comers on a tuition-free basis. Their organizers obtain charters, typically for a five-year term, in exchange for a commitment on their part to elevate student learning. The school leaders — often like-minded teachers and parents — gain the leeway to innovate via waivers of many bureaucratic rules, but must abide by health, safety, and civil-rights laws.
Charters are where the right and left of the political spectrum converge in support of parental choice in education. Republican Governors and members of Congress support such schools, but so does President Clinton, who has taken justifiable pride in the growth of charter schools from one in 1992 to almost 1,700 (with 250,000 students) today.
The Gilmore Administration recently distributed grants totaling $88,000 to Virginia’s first three charter schools — Victory Academy in Gloucester, directed by former Democratic legislator Shirley Cooper; Hampton University’s Charter School for Math, Science, and Technology; and Roanoke’s Blue Ridge Technical Academy.
That trio looks promising but three isn’t enough for an education-minded state like Virginia. Arizona alone has more than 350 charter schools, making up a fourth of the state’s public schools. California (239), Michigan (173), Texas (167), and Florida (111) are among the other leaders. Neighboring North Carolina has seen 95 charter schools blossom since passage of enabling legislation in 1996. Among them is Healthy Start Academy in Durham, where achievement of low-income, minority children has soared over the 90th percentile.
In Colorado, a recent study by the state’s Education Department found striking gains in student test scores in the 51 charter schools that have been up and running for at least two years. Charter students scored 10 to 16 percentage points above statewide averages, and three-fourths of the charter schools out-performed home districts and schools with similar demographic profiles. Particularly impressive results came at the 22 Colorado charter schools that use the Core Knowledge model developed by University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr.
Dr. Hirsch’s sequential, fact-based approach to teaching and learning helped inspire writers of Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL’s) for basic academic subjects. But strangely enough, Virginia law and a state education establishment largely opposed to charter schools discourage parents and teachers from calling on Dr. Hirsch’s foundation in Charlottesville for help in setting up Core Knowledge charter schools, which could aid many districts, schools, and students in mastering the SOL tests.
The devil is in the detail of Virginia’s watered-down 1998 charter school law, which the Center for Education Reform rates as the third weakest of the nation’s 37 charter laws. The statute provides for no school-chartering authority other than the local school board, and for no appeal of school-board rejections to a higher authority, such as the State Board of Education. Only 15 of Virginia’s 130 local boards have said they would be willing even to entertain applications for charter schools. Furthermore, the law requires charter schools to hire state-certified teachers rather than allowing organizers the flexibility offered in states like Colorado to select some teachers from outside the ed-school track with real-world experience and strong knowledge of their subjects.
It takes a far-sighted school board member — one willing to defy the education monopoly — to be willing to set up a center of competition within the local school system. Strong-minded reformers should have the help of strong state laws.
Successful charter models differ widely in their approaches, ranging from the classical to the progressive, but their very diversity recognizes that children learn in different ways. In their total commitment to accountability (to the point of shutting down if they fail to produce academic results), charters would complement the good work Virginia is doing in insisting on rigorous standards of learning. A dramatically strengthened charter-school law ought to be a top priority for bipartisan action by Governor Gilmore and the General Assembly when the 2001 session begins next January.
Frank Riggs, an Alexandria resident and former Congressman from California, authored the 1998 Charter Schools Expansion Act. Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan public-policy research organization in Arlington, VA
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