Since my days as a member of the State Board of Education, I have always supported the concept of allowing new, creative and different approaches to teaching students; including charter schools. I was involved in getting the first charter legislation passed in Virginia in 1998, and I was pleased to testify in support of charter school legislation during this year’s General Assembly.
We have seen the success of charter schools in various jurisdictions, especially in the District of Columbia where nearly 30 percent of the public school students are in charter school. And while I realize they are controversial, that has been primarily because educators have been reluctant to change.
Here in Virginia, we have seen that reluctance to change in many areas, including: the family life curriculum; teacher preparation programs; and assessments of schools driven by results or outcomes rather than by inputs (basis for our cherished SOLs). But with bold leadership, those needed changes were made and have been successful.
In order for charter schools to have a chance for success, the Board of Education must take the lead in creating an atmosphere where charters will be seriously considered by local school boards. And local school boards need to do their part by approving quality applications and then supporting those schools once they are approved.
President Obama has made it clear that he thinks charter schools need to be part of the solution for education reform. Virginia needs to do its part to make that a reality. That brings me to the main points I want to make: the role of the State Board of Education.
First, we must be guided by the principle that the Board of Education’s mission is to take whatever action is needed to assure that Virginia students get the best possible education to prepare them to be successful in a global economy. The Board must set the climate for significant educational reform by exerting leadership; otherwise there will be no significant changes or progress.
That means you must be willing to take risks.
The Board of Education must explain to the Virginia public the nexus between educational success, economic development and workforce preparation. And it must encourage localities to be bold and aggressive in implementing reform options. Local systems making timid decisions to preserve the status quo is unacceptable, especially as it relates to lower performing schools.
Superintendent Wright and the Board should be commended for the bold steps they took to issue Requests for Proposals for outside entities to work with local systems to improve lower performing schools. That same level of boldness is needed with other components of education reform, and the Board’s advocacy for reform must include a range of options since there are no “silver bullets.”
That means a focus on:
- Charter schools
- Use of turnaround entities to work with lower performing schools. Decisions on turnaround partners need to be driven by which approaches will bring meaningful change and not those that will allow localities to maintain the status quo which has been shown not to result in increased student achievement.
- Virtual schools using online program approaches
- Lab schools that utilize partnerships between K-12 systems and higher education institutions. That includes using not only public institutions of higher education but also Virginia’s excellent private, non-religious institutions.
Vigorous accountability and assessment must be critical components on a continuing basis for all of these measures.
And with respect to charter schools, the Board of Education must develop criteria for charter applications that demand quality submissions. The Board must send to the localities for consideration charter applications that are robust, creative and are worthy of approval. That means rejecting applications that do not contain clear plans for enhancing student achievement. It also means having the technical expertise available to assist charter school applicants both on the initial applications and on revisions to applications rejected by local boards.
Virginia’s efforts to reform education to improve student success will only succeed if the state Board of Education takes a major leadership and advocacy role that encourages and supports the localities yet holds them accountable. If the localities fail to take the needed action to implement change, it will be the Commonwealth that bears the burden of failure.
Success in educational reform is not a spectator sport. The Board must be an active participant and lead the effort for change. Nor can the Board sit on the sidelines and let others determine if Virginia students are prepared for success as members of a global workforce.
This Board of Education has the opportunity to lead Virginia into a significant era of educational reform that will prepare our students to be successful in a global economy. They must seize the moment and make these reforms successful.