Article published in The The Winchester Star
Virginia has one of the strongest sets of K-12 learning standards in the nation. Organizations as disparate as the Princeton Review and the Thomas Fordham Foundation have given the Standards of Learning (SOL) high marks. Virginians can take pride that an ever-increasing proportion of their public schools have pulled their overall SOL performance over the passing mark.
In the next few years will come the true tests: What will happen next year when several thousand high school students may not have passed the six end-of-course SOL tests that will become mandatory for graduation? And what will happen in 2007 when a few hundred schools still may fall short of the 70 percent student passing mark that will then be required for state accreditation?
Here’s where Virginia currently falls short: It has no real plan in place for dealing with the pockets of failure the SOL is effectively exposing. Children take a test in common but not all of them learn in same way. Virginia is missing out on opportunities to expand a range of educational options that could help struggling students and schools.
The Manhattan Institute ranks Virginia 42nd out of 50 states on its Education Freedom Index. That’s a measure of educational options that function across the spectrum from publicly to privately controlled: magnet schools, public charter schools, private scholarships, public scholarships, and home schooling.
Virginia receives this low ranking not just because it hasn’t yet embraced such promising but controversial aids to private choice as vouchers and education tax credits, but because of its resistance even to expanded choice within the public school system. The nonpartisan Center for Education Reform rates Virginia’s charter school law the fourth weakest of the 40 state laws enacted since 1992.
Virginia’s law, which went on the books in 1998, is weak because of its rigid limits on the duration and numbers of charters, and the absence of any state-level entity to approve meritorious applications for charters or to review arbitrary rejections by local school boards. Virginia’s law was a device for protecting the turf of local school boards, not for rescuing children from inadequate schools. Thus, while the number of charter schools approaches 3,000 nationally, Virginia has yet to break into double digits.
A strong charter law permits teachers, parents, community organizations, universities, or educational management companies to devise charters according to a stated vision for education and to operate them. Because charters are public schools, they are open to all who choose them and they may not charge tuition. They have a double-barreled accountability: They must deliver on the results they promise or face their charter being yanked, and they must satisfy the families they serve or risk losing them to other schools.
The sad saga of the Hampton University Charter School for Math, Science, and Technology illustrates the mindless roadblock to innovation in Virginia. In 2000, the prestigious independent university received a federal planning grant for the charter school. HU President William Harvey and others had a well-thought-out vision for a school on university grounds that would offer alternative strategies to help high school students meet and exceed SOL requirements. But in 2002, as the charter school was preparing to open, the Hampton School Board abruptly pulled the plug on it, evidently fearing to let a small fraction of its money go to a school that parents choose.
As Virginia’s leaders consider ways to complete the SOL reform and to comply with the federal No Children Left Behind requirements for correcting deficient schools, they may want to ponder ways to avoid wasting such golden opportunities as a Hampton University charter school again.
A reformed law would find a way to assert the interests of children against the turf-protecting instincts of districts with large numbers of failing schools. Although some legal authorities believe Virginia’s 1972 Constitution renders local school boards supreme in powers of yea or nay, the state exerts influence over local policy in a myriad of ways, ranging from teacher certification to school-bus safety.
It would not be outrageous for a chartering authority to be set up under the State Board of Education with power to certify outstanding charter-school applications and to consider appeals from local rejections. A state board could even charter regional schools or online schools (cybercharters) to help children without regard to district boundaries.
Finally, in addition to fresh ideas and enthusiasm, charter schools could bring additional resources to Virginia schools. States with robust charter movements receive as much as $25 million in federal aid. School management companies make capital investments, even to the extent of building their own schools, when chartered by states that want this extra service as an option for their children.
If charter schools are good for children in states from Arizona to Florida to Michigan to Colorado, then why wouldn’t they be good for children in Virginia, too?
Robert Holland is a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute.
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