Virginia’s Governor’s School Program is thriving, while its charter school movement is still struggling to get off the ground. The top Governor’s School, Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, is renowned not only throughout the Commonwealth but appears regularly atop lists of the nation’s finest high schools. The 18 academic-year Governor’s Schools provide 5,500 gifted students with accelerated learning environments and highly accomplished teaching faculties.
Meanwhile, Virginia’s four active charter schools, with a fifth approved to open in Richmond in 2011, have been slow to gain traction, despite a visible increase in the quality of applications submitted in recent years. Virginia’s charter school laws are often described as weak. But the more useful point may be that they place Virginia school districts at odds with those seeking their approval to launch charter schools.
Virginia’s rather intricate funding formula for schools serves to exacerbate the problem. A major reason why the Governor’s Schools have grown and thrived, while charter schools have not, stems from the fact that the state provides funding directly for Governor’s Schools. The system requires school districts to provide only a portion of the per-pupil funding, while the General Assembly and Governor approve the balance of “appropriate funding levels.” For 2009, Virginia’s add-on per pupil allotment for academic year Governors Schools is $4,479.
Virginia does not provide charter schools with any additional state funding, requiring local school boards to hand over all of a charter schools’ operating funds on a per-pupil basis. This unnecessarily creates an adversarial relationship between school boards and charter applicants, with no opportunity permitted for the applicant to seek approval elsewhere. The important question, then, is less one of relative strength, than of design. As a result, Virginia stands to miss out on considerable increases in federal funding for charter schools, of which the stimulus plan is likely only the beginning.
Unlike Governor’s Schools, charter schools do not have admissions policies, and any children in their school district may apply. Virginia Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter has been the leader for improved charter school laws in Richmond in recent years — this year the General Assembly approved his proposal to lift state-imposed caps on the numbers and size of charter schools, along with removing sunset provisions on other provisions. But charter school opponents have successfully beaten back more aggressive improvements, such as another proposal by Lingamfelter to allow charter school leaders autonomy in hiring teachers and principals.
Virginia’s overall public school system consistently ranks among the nation’s top performing. But one-fifth of Virginia’s eighth graders continue to earn desperately low scores of “below basic” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Data released last month revealed the statewide dropout rate for black students to be twice that for white students, while Latino students dropped out three times as frequently. A national study from the RAND Corporation recently concluded that students who attended charter high schools were more likely to graduate and go on to college than traditional public high school students.
Find Archived Articles: