Last month, the Virginia Board of Education took up consideration of a new proposal for a charter high school for Richmond, a college preparatory academy designed to provide boys from low-income, urban households with an education its leaders say is generally only available to families that can afford to pay for private schooling.
Educating children is an investment in the future, but limited access to high-quality educational opportunities remains a reality for many of Virginia’s low-income households. An environment conducive to the establishment of top-performing charter schools could be an important solution to solving this challenge.
Public charter schools are established with prescribed independence from district rules and policies in exchange for increased accountability for academic outcomes. This independence allows charter schools to create and implement innovative ideas, such as alternative curricula, longer school hours, and other strategies to improve academic performance. A national study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcome concluded earlier this year that Washington, DC charter school students gain an extra 101 days in math and 72 days in reading compared with peers in public schools and they also exceed performance standards of charter schools throughout the country.
At this time, Virginia is not a friendly place for charter schools. Local school divisions, which have exclusive authority to approve charters, lack experience and resources while the state’s restrictive legal framework discourages most serious applicants from the serious commitment required to produce successful applications.
Virginia’s public education system has many strengths, but its progress addressing achievement gaps is uneven and limited. The recently released 2013 Nation’s Report Card outcomes show that students in Virginia have been struggling to improve reading scores for quite some time. Fourth and eighth graders in Virginia scored above the national averages for proficiency in reading, however, they have been flat for the past decade. Results over time revealed that students’ scores in Virginia have remained the same, plus or minus a few points, since 2002 – showing no actual progress in scores for at least 11 years.
But the Nation’s Report Card also highlights another problem in the state: a large racial and socioeconomic achievement gap in outcomes. According to the 2013 results, 66 percent of white fourth graders are at or above reading proficiency, compared with 26 percent of their black classmates. White eighth graders scored 50 percent at or above reading proficiency, compared with 18 percent of black students.
Students eligible for the national school lunch program further underscore the achievement gap: 24 percent of fourth graders at or above reading proficiency are eligible for the lunch program, and 19 percent of eligible eighth graders scored the same. Compare those percentages to the 74 percent of fourth graders and the 53 percent of eight graders who at or above reading proficiency, but whose family income levels do not qualify them for the school lunch program. The achievement gap is real, and charter schools nationally have demonstrated that their greatest strength may be at addressing this challenge.
The lack of choices for Virginia’s students at the wrong end of enduring achievement gaps threatens Virginia’s economic growth and its future. The next governor of Virginia would be well-served to consider the benefits charter schools could bring to families when they are established consistent with best practices nationally. Charter schools are able to inject a new focus on classroom instructional innovation driven by the urgency of the need for better solutions. But making that happen will require policy changes and leadership to ensure the quality schools and opportunities that can reverse the inequalities prevalent today.
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