Commonwealth Charter School Initiative May Come at the Expense of Local School Budgets

Governor Bob McDonnell held a press conference earlier this week to unveil his “The Opportunity to Learn” education reform legislative package. McDonnell characterized the initiative as offering “options and innovation for all Virginia schoolchildren, but especially those who are at-risk or in underperforming school systems” through the expansion of charter schools in the Commonwealth. However, many educators see the move as a way to weaken Virginia’s public school system.

Virginia Education Association (VEA) and other organizations representing school boards and superintendents urged McDonnell to reconsider provisions that would unconstitutionally transfer authority away from local school divisions.CCSchools - High School 2

“We believe charter schools in Virginia can operate in a manner consistent with Virginia’s constitution, consistent with Virginia’s system of educational accountability, consistent with nondiscriminatory practices, consistent with principles of fiscal accountability to the taxpayers, and consistent with policies that require well trained staff members who are treated in an equitable manner,” VEA President Kitty Boitnott said. “Quite frankly, we are perplexed that a path unnecessarily in conflict with our constitution has been chosen in the proposed legislation.”

Speaking about “The Opportunity to Learn” legislative package, Governor McDonnell remarked, “There is broad support for the basic principle that a child’s educational opportunities should be determined by her intellect and work ethic, not her zip code. We all agree that every Virginia student, in every community, should have the opportunity to learn and to grow and to compete in this global economy. President Obama speaks often of his commitment to expanding educational opportunities and charter schools for young people. I share that commitment.”

McDonnell’s plan seems certain to face constitutional challenge regardless of its merits. VEA pointed out that the authority to review and grant charter school status rests with local school divisions. According to VEA, the Virginia Constitution (Article VIII, Section 7) states that, “The supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board.”

McDonnell believes that Virginia not only needs more charter schools, but that it ranks are the bottom of the nation in promoting new charter school initiatives. “It has been 12 years since we passed our law authorizing charter schools in the Commonwealth. However, in a nation with 4600 charter schools Virginia has only three, with a fourth slated to open soon in Richmond. We rank at the very bottom in studies of state’s charter school laws… Part of the difficulty has come from uncertainty regarding how to evaluate charter school applications. Local school boards have struggled to determine a good proposal from a bad one. Our legislation will create a process in which the Board of Education, utilizing charter school experts, will review all applications before they come before a local School Board. This will help provide needed guidance and direction and consistency in the approval process and will also add an appeals process, to allow charter school applicants an additional opportunity to receive approval.”

Not everyone agrees that charter schools are necessarily better than a public school education.  VEA countered McDonnell’s assessment “Just in the Richmond area alone we have schools that specialize in arts, engineering, communication, languages, humanities, technology, International Baccalaureate,   IT, leadership/government and global economics, military, and science/mathematics and technology,” said Boitnott. “We have governor’s schools, magnet schools, centers for the gifted. The list goes on and on.”

The evidence on charter school impact on student achievement is, at best, mixed. In a widely cited study, researchers at Stanford University found that 46 percent of charter school students earned scores in math indistinguishable from their peers in public schools. Seventeen percent posted better scores-but 37 percent achieved lower scores.

McDonnell’s charter school focus may appear out of touch to some as  Clarke County and other public schools systems struggle to fund basic core curriculums. Recent local anxiety over approval of the Local Composite Index underlines the dire state of local education funding. Any move to use state money to support new charter schools would likely cause further cuts in public school programs and services.

The Virginia School Board Association says that McDonnell’s effort to give the state Board of Education more say in the approval process promotes a political agenda over sound educational policy.  McDonnell has denied his proposal is unconstitutional.