When Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe took office three years ago, he made a commitment to ensuring equal opportunities for all of Virginia’s children central to his inaugural address. “Common ground doesn’t move towards us, we move towards it,” became a resonant theme, to be evaluated by actions in office.
New charter school legislation which passed the Virginia State Senate and House of Delegates this week may provide McAuliffe with his best chance yet to solidify a legacy of creating new educational opportunity built upon common ground. One remaining vote in the House, expected to occur next week, promises to send to the governor’s desk the most innovative new education proposal Virginia has seen in recent years. Signing it into law could secure McAuliffe an education legacy of new opportunity for families whose public schools have underserved their needs, representing an innovative plan passed with bipartisan support.
The plan, SB 1283, would enable the Virginia Board of Education to create new, regional public charter school divisions with the power to approve new public charter schools in communities whose traditional public schools have struggled for multiple years. In districts where schools have been denied accreditation for two of the past three years (excluding any small school district serving less than 3,000 students), the new plan would permit appointed, regional governing boards to approve the opening of new public charter schools meeting stated requirements.
Of the 94 public schools that were denied accreditation status under Virginia’s accountability system during this school year, most are located in the Richmond City, Norfolk, Newport News, Portsmouth or Henrico school districts.
The most important reason why Virginia has so few charter schools is that only local school boards currently possess the authority to approve them. Politically and operationally, this arrangement has proven too steep a hurdle for even the most educationally sound charter school plans to win approval around the state. Beyond the predictable pressures from competing local interests proving difficult for new plans to overcome, it has become clear that local school boards generally lack the experience, expertise and available resources required for the effective evaluation and oversight that charter schools require. The new, regional boards, established solely for the purpose of considering public charter school plans and providing oversight, would have the opportunity to develop these tools.
Nationally, the public charter school experience has demonstrated that details matter greatly when it comes to assuring quality schools. Jurisdictions where healthy, high-quality charters schools offer families opportunities to meet their children’s educational needs, as a valuable complement to existing schools, rely on effective oversight and transparent, responsive decisionmaking. For example, the District of Columbia’s Public Charter School Board, which the Washington Post this week called a “national model for accountability,” utilizes a range of accountability and oversight systems and a staff of experienced experts to oversee a diverse portfolio of schools – schools which regularly put upward pressure on equitable student achievement and growth measures across the Nation’s Capital.
Governor McAuliffe will soon have the opportunity to approve this ambitious and innovative new plan to service families across the commonwealth. As his term nears the close of his fourth and final legislative session, what could do more to ensure a legacy of creating new opportunities for children forged on common ground than to set this plan into motion?
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