Newspaper stories around the country have chronicled the friction triggered by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), as American public education has come to reckon with a system — albeit an imperfect one — assigning consequences for its success rates.
In Virginia, however, where the Standards of Learning/Standards of Quality have been well underway for 6 years, it is already well established that relative school performance matters. And for most school districts, those years span a period of academic progress and improving test scores.
In fact, when Virginia policymakers gave Washington some pushback of their own, it was not hard to see their point: Virginia already had in place a system that accomplished many of the goals of NCLB.
But these successes have not yet been shared by families whose children attend the 130 Virginia public schools that still have not earned full accreditation.
All 9 of the public schools in Petersburg City, for instance, are accredited with warning, including its one high school and middle school.
Likewise, families whose children attend public schools in Hampton, Portsmouth or Roanoke cities (where 7, 9 and 14 schools are not fully accredited, respectively) are left with precious few attractive, or affordable, alternatives.
According to a petition sent by parents and residents to the Petersburg school board at the beginning of this year, “3 elementary schools out of 6 have lost ground this year compared to last year…. The high school and the middle school have shown no appreciable gains.”
For all of the progress statewide, Virginia has yet to develop a meaningful plan to fix schools like Petersburg’s.
Public charter schools may be just the answer in such communities.
Charter schools are public schools granted special autonomy to operate outside of local school district policies, in exchange for maintaining agreed-upon levels of academic achievement by students. They can be smaller, specialized, and frequently enjoy greater parental satisfaction and involvement. And, being public schools, they are bound to accept all applicants: waiting lists must be resolved by random lottery.
In Virginia, who better to run these schools than the Commonwealth’s public colleges and universities? Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Education, for instance, could bring much to the table to benefit Richmond schoolchildren. The faculty and tradition of Virginia Military Institute has much it could offer a charter school. So do Virginia Union University, Hampton University, and the Commonwealth’s other historically black institutions of higher education.
Virginia’s community colleges could do much to at-risk students as well.
In Michigan, where charter schools now educate over 100,000 children, universities play a powerful role in the leadership and oversight of those schools. Central Michigan University runs nearly 60 highly-regarded charter schools. The schools differ broadly, and all benefit from the university’s specialized experience at running charter schools.
These charters not only meet the needs of at-risk, financially disadvantaged and special-needs students, but of taxpayers as well. The Michigan Department of Education says charter school enrollment will save taxpayers there nearly $150 million in 2006.
What would the benefits of such a system be for Virginia?
The most comprehensive national research to date on charter schools, by Harvard University’s Caroline Hoxby, has been quite positive. Students in established charter schools significantly outperform their peers attending neighborhood public schools in both reading and math, the Harvard data show.
The main reason charter schools have not thrived in Virginia is that the laws governing charter schools here are very restrictive.
Nonetheless, the Richmond School Board is currently considering what may be the state’s strongest charter school proposal to date. Its organizers have earned a stellar reputation for their work helping struggling children, mostly from low-income homes, achieve impressive reading and math gains. They have also applied to open a public charter school in Norfolk.
A third charter school, that offers an arts-based approach designed for at-risk children, is being considered in Albemarle County.
Each of these would represent a valuable new option for families in those communities. They would also serve the charter school movement here well by establishing a track record here in the Old Dominion.
But few things could help establish charters here like getting Virginia’s public colleges and universities — with all that they have to offer — into the act.
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