Charter schools are one of the nation’s biggest school-reform success stories of the past decade. With almost 3,000 charters now in operation, more than two-thirds currently have waiting lists. There are charters in 36 states, led by educators, parents, universities and professional management companies. Now a new plan sponsored by Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter has the potential to improve Virginia’s charter laws substantially, and bring this powerful school reform to the Commonwealth in a meaningful way.
As Virginia seeks to further advance the progress its schools have already made under the Standards of Learning, charters are a natural next step. Among the advantages of charter schools are the ability to offer academic specialties not commonly available to students, and to address individual needs as a result of being smaller than most other public schools. Also, as public schools of choice, charter schools must continually demonstrate academic results in order to retain their students. Those that fail to maintain the agreed-upon performance standards of their charter can be shut down.
Unfortunately, Virginia has missed out on this powerful innovation. No new charter schools were approved in 2002-03 (Virginia has only eight), and four charter applications were rejected. Virginia lost its federal charter schools funding this year because of a lack of charter activity. States with robust charter school movements receive as much as $25 million in federal aid.
Now a plan introduced in the 2004 General Assembly promises to energize the Old Dominion’s charter school law. It includes measures to assist local school boards in evaluating charter school applications, while encouraging them to approve superior ones. Specifically, the plan:
- Creates a state Board of Education charter application review committee to examine and certify proposals for feasibility, financial soundness, curriculum, and other factors. Either local school boards or charter applicants are able to seek the committee’s approval.
- Eliminates the requirement in current law that at least half of charters in any school district be designed for at-risk children – giving local school boards greater discretion.
- Increases the maximum time for which charters can be approved from 3 to 7 years.
- Ensures charter applications will receive a fair hearing by bolstering judicial review under certain circumstances.
- Requires charters to maintain high standards for teachers and administrators while allowing them to hire qualified teachers who don’t happen to be certified through conventional schools of education.
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