Article Published in The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot
With a new school year underway, Virginia is at long last using tools to advance parental choice in education – and grass-roots interest is stirring.
Over the summer, two dozen parents and educators from throughout the state gathered for an all-day meeting at an Innsbrook office building in western Henrico County to study how to submit strong applications to start public charter schools. Charters are public schools granted special autonomy to offer distinctive educational programs that any family in a school district is free to choose.
One of the groups interested in energizing this kind of reform is a newly formed Virginia chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO). Nationally, BAEO has galvanized support among African-American parents for greater say-so in their children’s education, particularly when their assigned government schools aren’t performing well.
“Low income families are in need of new educational options to increase parental involvement and exposure,” says Robert Ashford, the chapter’s president.
Another hopeful sign is the interest that a successful school-management company, Mosaica Education, is expressing in operating a results-oriented charter school in a district of great need, such as Petersburg. The Pennsylvania-based company currently operates 47 schools in 7 states.
Until recently, it has been difficult to detect a pulse for a Virginia charter-school movement. The original charter law enacted in 1998 gave local school boards little incentive to give charter applications serious consideration.
“A charter school is appealing to some people because it provides a superior education for less expense to the taxpayer, or because it has smaller classes, or because it has a longer school day and year, or has a greater focus on the use of technology for delivering instruction,” observed Mosaica CEO Michael Connelly. “But in every community, parents tell us, the charter school’s greatest attraction is that it welcomes parental and community involvement.”
A revision sponsored by Republican Delegate Scott Lingamfelter in the 2004 General Assembly and endorsed by Democratic Governor Mark Warner removed some of the obstacles that have held back the charter movement’s growth in Virginia. It also sets up a state review board that will certify meritorious applications to local school boards.
Thanks to Virginia’s pioneering Standards of Learning as well as the federal No Child Left Behind requirements, it is becoming practical to identify with precision schools that are having difficulty rising to acceptable levels of achievement.
Data recently released by the Virginia Department of Education showed that almost 70 percent of the state’s nearly 2,000 public schools met the federal definition for Adequate Yearly Progress during 2003-04, a marked improvement from 58 percent the previous year.
Under the federal law, a school that fails to make adequate progress for two consecutive years is identified as “in need of improvement” and parents are to be given the option of transferring their child to a higher-performing school in the same district. Failure to make adequate progress for a third consecutive year means tutoring or other supplemental services must be provided to low-income families. Continued failure means a school must be identified for corrective action, one option being conversion into a charter school.
It was an unfortunate, but predictable, development to many Virginians, that the schools that have appeared on this list in both of the past two years are mostly concentrated in the Commonwealth’s most troubled school districts, including: Richmond, Petersburg, Portsmouth, Newport News, Hampton.
Also of strong interest to Virginia school reformers may be the looming impact of annual SOL testing on school accreditation. Schools that haven’t met the minimum passing rates for student achievement could start being denied full accreditation beginning in 2006. Given that the SOL reform began in the 1990s, there has been plenty of advance warning. Troubled schools are receiving much extra help to come up to standard.
The main difference between the federal and Virginia standards for progress is that No Child Left Behind measures not just the achievement of students overall, but also of subgroups such as black, Hispanic, disadvantaged and disabled students. Disabled students may be assessed using a wide range of different tests and testing accommodations.
But if community support exists for making changes now, to include empowering parents with choice among options that are proven to work, why wait for all of the statutory and regulatory requirements to play out? Sooner rather than later would be a wiser timetable for helping children who are stuck in substandard schools.
Robert Holland is Senior Fellow and Don Soifer is Executive Vice President with the Lexington Institute in Arlington.
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