Virginia’s General Assembly finalized a number of sensible improvements to the state’s charter school laws in the closing hours of its 2012 legislative session. The changes seem unlikely to shift the statewide charter school landscape overnight in any dramatic fashion. But the elements of Governor Bob McDonnell’s charter school legislation that made it across the finish line should bring about meaningful differences in the operating environments for those charters that do get approved, helping them provide sustainable, high-quality educational options.
Specifically, the legislation now awaiting the Governor’s signature makes these changes:
• Requires that all charter schools receive funding at “commensurate levels” with the average costs of educating students at existing schools in their school district.
• At the discretion of local school boards, charter school personnel may be employees of charter schools and not reliant on school district central offices for hiring. Teacher certification requirements remain the same for charters as for all other public schools.
• The new legislation permits charters to use vacant or unused properties owned by the school division in which they operate.
• Local school boards who revoke or reject charter school applications are required to submit a written explanation for these decisions to the state Board of Education.
• The changes also eliminate a clause in the code that permitted school boards special authority to shut down charters at any time simply by invoking the blanket rationale that they are no longer in the best interest of students to continue its operation.
This last “poison pill” clause has been cited as a deterrent to serious applicants from making the substantial investment of time and resources required to open a high-quality charter school, raising the risk that a change in school board membership could close a high-performing charter at any time for reasons unrelated to their performance. Charters are already held to higher accountability standards through the terms of their approval, which tie their continued operation to achieving specific student academic performance targets, along with other terms either negotiated or required by law.
For many observers, these reforms will also be characterized by what they did not do: extend the authority to approve new charter to schools to any other entity besides local school boards. While such an arrangement is considered highly desirable by those who run quality charters elsewhere, Virginia’s constitutional provisions requiring local control of schools were widely regarded during deliberations as an obstacle to implementing such an arrangement here.
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