In the midst of a legislative session otherwise distinguished by sharp division over tax policy, a new proposal to upgrade Virginia’s charter school law continues to move ahead with bipartisan support in the General Assembly. On Saturday, the measure passed the House of Delegates 62-36. After mid- Session crossover, it is now before the Senate Education and Health Committee.
The proposed Charter School Excellence and Accountability Act provides the General Assembly the best chance to jump-start the public charter school movement since enactment of the original enabling law six years ago.
While 3,000 charter schools have opened nationally over the past decade (three out of four currently have students on waiting lists), only eight have come into being in Virginia. Last year, Virginia approved no new charter schools, while four applications were rejected. If passed by the Senate and signed into law by Governor Warner, the plan would accomplish the following:
1. Better equip local school boards to evaluate charters. Charter applications could be sent to a new statewide charter school committee under the jurisdiction of the State Board of Education for review and comment. The board’s review then would become part of the charter application. Once implemented, this would give local school board members the benefit of the state board’s experience and expertise examining feasibility, curriculum, financial soundness, and other criteria. The state board would not have decision- making authority over ultimate approval or disapproval of applications, but if the state reviewers gave a positive evaluation, local school boards would need to explain why they rejected a meritorious application.
2. Give greater discretion to local school boards by ending the requirement that more than half of charter schools in any school district must be for at-risk kids, while giving priority to charters serving populations whose public schools have not attained full state accreditation.
3. Increase the life of a charter from the current three years to five. Additionally, persons serving in a charter school would be permitted to have an ownership or financial interest in a facility housing a charter-school, provided there was full disclosure. In other states, charter schools sometimes operate in storefronts, museums, universities, or other non-conventional facilities — thereby sparing the local school system a capital expense. These provisions should provide greater incentives for parents, teachers, universities, or management companies to step forward as potential charter sponsors – giving school boards more and better applications to review.
The plan also wo uld give the Commonwealth an important fiscal advantage: Last year, Virginia lost its federal charter schools funding due to lack of charter activity. Other states with more robust charter school movements receive millions from Washington, including for charter school startups and establishing safe and functional facilities, and Virginia is missing out.
While charter schools receive exemption from certain bureaucratic regulations to enable them to innovate, they remain public schools with a high degree of accountability. Sponsors of charter schools sign binding agreements promising to deliver results. If they fail to live up to their commitment, the school board can revoke their charter. In addition, as schools of choice, they are accountable to the families they serve.
As the sponsor of the original charter-school law, Delegate Phil Hamilton, R-Newport News, pointed out in subcommittee, a vibrant charter school movement would likely become a valuable tool for local school systems struggling to meet Virginia SOL accreditation standards as well as the federal No Child Left Behind law in the next few years.
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