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Bringing Quality Schools to Virginia

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Having just finished a week of meetings reviewing charter school grant applications for the U.S. Department of Education, I was reminded of two summertime declarations by leaders of Virginia’s anti-charter school movement.

In July, Kitty Boitnott, president of the Virginia Education Association, attacked Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell for supporting the creation of more public charter schools, saying that the state should instead research why and how charter schools work in some places and not in others.
Unfortunately for Ms. Boitnott, we already know the answer to the question. What the research demonstrates is that the states with the greatest number of charter schools have either multiple authorizers or a strong appeals process; the states with the fewest number of charter schools empower only local school boards to approve charters. In short, the way to stifle innovative and effective charters has been to allow only one authorizer – exactly what the VEA advocates.

Particularly disappointing, though, is that Ms. Boitnott was preoccupied with arguing what is best for school systems, rather than what’s best for kids. In her remarks, she cited a recent Rand study, but ignored its conclusion that students attending a charter high school are eight to ten percentage points more likely to enroll in college than their traditional public school counterparts. Dozens of other studies show similar effects – particularly with at-risk kids.
This is a real problem, particularly for educationally disadvantaged students. More than 17,000 Virginians in last year’s graduating class did not graduate. The numbers are even more dramatic among at risk students – nearly 25 percent of economically disadvantaged students disappeared between ninth and 12th grades. In places like Petersburg, Virginia more than a third did not graduate on time.

Nor are the statistics any better in rural areas like King and Queen County, where the graduating class should have been 58 students:  Only 37 actually walked across the stage to accept their diplomas.

Ms. Boitnott’s attack was followed a few weeks later by an email from Frank Barham, executive director of the Virginia School Boards Association, declaring that a reason there are so few charter schools in Virginia is because “parents are happy with their local public schools and the education that their children receive.”


One is reminded of Georgia Senator Richard Russell who, even as he was leading the fight against civil rights laws granting equal opportunity, declared “There are no members of the Negro race in my state tonight who would say that any official or personal act of mine had resulted in any unfairness to the Negroes.”

Perhaps Mr. Barham imagines the “happy parents” dancing in the streets at the prospect that their child will receive an inadequate education. What kind of education leader really believes that parents are “happy with their local public schools” when their children don’t graduate? Or that the mothers and fathers of King and Queen County are pleased when 40 percent of 4th graders can’t read or do math on grade level? Is he fooling himself, or just trying to fool others?

Make no mistake – there are large swaths of Virginia where students are academically quite successful in their public schools. But there are significant pockets – both urban and rural – where the public school systems have for years failed the educationally at-risk students who attend them, and where parents would jump at the chance for an alternative if only one were available.

Quality charter schools like KIPP Academy, Connecticut’s Amistad Academy, Envision Schools, Aspire public schools and Harlem’s Democracy Prep have demonstrated their effectiveness in helping those students succeed.

Shouldn’t the Virginia Education Association and the Virginia School Boards Association focus on bringing those kinds of quality charters into the Commonwealth, rather than finding new excuses to keep them out?

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