A funny thing happened on the way to the election. Answering the last question, during the last debate, candidates John McCain and Barack Obama agreed with each other.
The issue was charter schools.
“Charter schools aren’t the only answer, but they’re providing competition,” Sen. McCain said.
“I think it’s important to foster competition inside the public schools,” Sen. Obama concurred.
Both are correct. Charter schools are one option among many that can give families the opportunity to seek the best education for their children. Here in the diverse and growing Commonwealth of Virginia, families would benefit from a broad range of educational options. While all students are better off when their parents have a number of choices available to meet their unique circumstances, this is especially true for the neediest.
Physically and mentally healthy kids from well-off families usually have the opportunity to attend private schools or to live in districts with the best public schools. But students with special needs, from families who are less financially fortunate, face life with fewer viable options.
That’s why it’s important that Virginia embrace a variety of school choice options: so that parents have the greatest chance to find the best educational opportunities for their children.
Charter schools are public schools where some of the bureaucratic rules that beset other public schools are relaxed in favor of high standards for student achievement, which are set out in each school’s charter. Right now, Virginia has few charter schools. But the experience of other states, from Louisiana to Massachusetts, where charters have meant the salvation of thousands of students entangled in the bureaucracy of poorly performing public schools, is a promising example for Virginia.
Educational tax credits are another hopeful option. These credits provide families a tax reduction based on the amount they spend on education. The great advantage to tax credits is that they allow parents to keep their own money and control where their education dollars are spent with minimal bureaucratic interference. This empowers parents by letting them spend their education dollars in whichever schools they think best for their children’s own needs. Education tax credits can also be made available to corporations that donate to scholarship-granting organizations. These corporate tax credits are of special benefit to students from lower-income families who would struggle to afford quality education even with an individual tax credit. Taken together, passing these types of tax credits would greatly benefit Virginia families. Such a program in Arizona has meant scholarships for approximately 150,000 students in the last ten years.
For students with special needs, tuition assistance grants (TAGs) provide a way for their families to afford either the public or private schools that are best equipped to handle their specific challenges. Recipients receive scholarships to attend the public or private schools of their choice; implementing such a program would mean higher educational quality for some of Virginia’s neediest kids. A major advantage of a proposal by State Senator Walter Stosch is that the grants could help remove the harmful sense of confrontation and persistent threat of lawsuits from the current special education decision-making process. One of the most successful of these programs is Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities, which provided scholarships to 18,273 special-needs students during the 2006-07 academic year and has become the largest educational-choice program in the United States.
Public education in Virginia is very good, for most children, and getting better. Since the commonwealth adopted statewide Standards of Learning (SOL) testing ten years ago, more schools than ever before—95 percent–are meeting the requirements for accreditation. That’s great news for many of Virginia students. But for the families who live in districts where the schools aren’t meeting SOLs or showing adequate improvement , or who have children with special needs, or who simply have private reasons for seeking education apart from the local public school, broad-based educational choice can better equip them to meet their own unique needs.
From the federal employees living in Fairfax, to the Navy sailors at Norfolk, to the coal miners of Bristol, Virginia parents face diverse challenges. When it comes to helping their children reach the American dream, they deserve educational opportunities as diverse as those challenges.
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