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The $350 Million Question

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Public charter schools are designed to be independently operated – where educators are given the freedom to design instructional programs that best serve their student population. In return, those schools are to be given strong accountability systems and oversight for student performance.



To create more quality charter schools, Governor Bob McDonnell proposes allowing charter school applicants to receive a quality precertification – and to offer those who are rejected by their local School Boards the option to appeal to the State Board of Education.



Although McDonnell has long advocated the innovation and excellence coming from quality charter schools, his proposal has an added impetus this year: federal dollars.



In laying out the conditions for the competitive $4.35 billion Race to the Top funds, federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan made it clear that states had better have a strong charter school law – including “real autonomy for charters combined with a rigorous authorization process and high performance standards.”



At stake for Virginia is $350 million in new federal funding.



Does Virginia’s law stand up?



The Center for Education Reform’s Charter School Law report gives Virginia an “F” – second worst in the nation.



More importantly, the rankings of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools focus the elements most likely to make a school successful in teaching kids: accountability and performance. There, Virginia ranks 35 out of 40 states.



The reality “on the ground” is no better.



When Hampton University, one of Virginia’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, developed a charter proposal it was approved by the Hampton School Board. The university then obtained grants totaling nearly $200,000, invested $500,000 of its own money in renovating a building, and set aside $1 million for the school’s first year budget of $1.9 million – only to see the School Board pull the rug out from under them and refuse to fund the rest, as they had agreed.



Despite student scores higher than the school division itself, the Roanoke City School board shut down the Blue Ride Technical Academy. Although a real charter school would have sought out private funds, built a strong parent group, sought waivers from expensive bureaucratic regulations and aggressively sought out new students, Blue Ridge Technical Academy wasn’t able to do any of that, and the school was killed off – right after their federal start-up grants ran out.



We’ve seen charter school applicants told they couldn’t talk to local school board members about their idea before submitting it; schools that received rigorously competitive federal grants told by the local school board it wasn’t good enough; and one that sought to replicate a successful school for at-risk kids in one school division by opening it as a charter school in another — turned down.



This process is what the Virginia School Boards Association calls “one of the best charter laws in the nation.”



Hardly. And the world is paying attention. The Washington Post noted last year that “Virginia is badly out of step in not welcoming schools that have fostered innovation and shown success with at-risk students.”


This decision-making monopoly – combined with laws preventing charters from operating with any autonomy – has resulted in quality charter school operators like KIPP Academies, Aspire Schools and Amistad Academy choosing not to come to Virginia.



Those same laws have too-often fostered hostility by restricting the process and discouraging cooperation and collaboration between those who want to start a charter to help at-risk kids and the school system – with the result that many charter applications are poorly written and home-grown quality charters never get off the ground.



Clearly, Virginia has successful schools. Just as clearly, it could benefit from high-performing charter schools that target educationally at-risk kids. The KIPP Academies, for example, operate 66 middle schools where 81 percent of the students are low-income, but where 93 percent graduate high school and 85 percent go on to college.



One local Virginia School Board member was asked: Would he approve a quality charter school like this for his school division? His answer:  a resounding “NO.”



Yet, his is a school division where 40 percent of 6th and 8th graders cannot read on grade level, 64 percent of 7th graders cannot do math on grade level, and 40 percent of the students don’t graduate on time.



And that’s the problem. For him, no matter how bad the kids in his schools may be doing, form is more important than substance.



And that’s wrong. What’s at stake in the battle to improve Virginia’s charter school law isn’t merely a matter of $350 million, as important as that is.



It’s a question of whether we will do whatever we can to ensure that every child in the Commonwealth has an opportunity to achieve the best they can, graduate high school, go on to post-secondary school and take their place as contributing members of society.




This article is reprinted with permission; it was originally published in the Richmond Times Dispatch on February 16, 2010.

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