Article Published in the Roanoke (VA) Times
Governor Mark R. Warner vowed during the election campaign last fall to let voters in the most traffic-choked areas of the Old Dominion decide if they wanted a sales tax increase to fund projects intended to reduce that congestion. That’s the fulfilled campaign promise everyone knows about. However, the Democratic Governor kept another one that received little press but some day may be much more important to the children of this state.
Warner kept his campaign promise to support public charter schools.
At the April 17 veto override session, the General Assembly overwhelmingly agreed to Governor Warner’s amendment and gave final approval to a bill sponsored by Senator Warren Barry, R-Fairfax, that will improve chances for parents, teachers, and other interested citizens to organize public charter schools in Virginia. When the measure takes effect July 1, it will strike a feature of the 1998 law providing that school boards go through an insanely laborious process before deciding whether even to consider applications for charter schools.
Now, the presumption will be that all school boards will consider all applications.
Warner received pressure from the education establishment, notably the turf-protecting School Boards Association, to veto the bill. Under fire from the vested interests, the bill had passed by only 6 votes in the House. The education establishment often exerts decisive influence on Democratic politicos. But not only did Warner refuse to exercise a veto, his amendment actually substantially strengthened the Barry bill.
Thanks to his amendment, the new law will require local school boards to report to the State Board of Education not only charter applications they approve but also those they reject. That puts an additional onus on local boards to cut the stonewalling and consider applications fairly.
Fifty local school boards (enrolling 40 percent of Virginia’s public schoolchildren) had seized upon the current law to freeze out charter schools totally. Evidently, those board members feared the internal competition (charters are public schools but receive leeway to deviate from one-size-fits-all orthodoxy). Evidently, they deemed it scary that parents actually might be able to choose from a menu of curricular options for their children. Those boards epitomized the exercise of unenlightened self-interest.
Additionally, the new law will make clear that universities may sponsor charter schools in Virginia. Universities run charter schools in states like Michigan and New York with considerable benefit to at-risk and other kids.
Among the 37 states with charter-school laws, only Mississippi has strewn more obstacles in the path of would-be charter-school organizers than has Virginia. With this material strengthening of the Virginia law, the picture brightens. Opportunity beckons. Virginia now has fewer than 10 charter schools. In a few years, it is now possible Virginia will have dozens of them, offering hope particularly where there are pockets of huge need within the system.
Nowhere are those pockets more apparent than in the 36 low-performing schools – 22 of them in the cities of Richmond and Petersburg – where schools are performing so poorly on the Standards of Learning that their parents could qualify for mandatory “supplemental services,” such as private tutoring, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
Tutoring could help. But why shouldn’t the business community and the universities huddle with teachers and parents to organize charter schools that promise to be accountable for achieving academic results in such pitiable circumstances? Shouldn’t the business and education elite be alarmed when there are schools, such as those in inner-city Richmond, where 90 percent of third-graders are not being taught to read? Pennsylvania has moved boldly to privatize public schools in Philadelphia that perform far below minimally acceptable standards. Where is the equivalent leadership in Virginia?
Perhaps Governor Warner will take the next step and provide that leadership.
—Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute.
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