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Virginia Needs More Charter Schools

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Virginia educators are justifiably proud of their ranking – 4th best in the nation – according to Education Week’s annual “Quality Counts” report.

The Old Dominion scored far higher than the national average on every indicator, earning an A in the important “standards, assessments and accountability” category.

But in shouting huzzah, we run the risk of overlooking clear pockets of failure.

Consider the systems of Norfolk, Richmond, Roanoke and Petersburg, which seem unable to break out of a spiral of academic failure. All have five or more schools failing to meet state accreditation. In some cases, the schools have been on a watch list for years, and in the case of Petersburg the number of failing schools actually increased. There, 53 percent of seventh graders cannot read on grade level and the response has been typical for bureaucracies: a five-year series of “Memoranda of Understanding,” promising corrective actions that have either not taken place or have not worked.

The most recent response? To issue yet another Request for Proposal (RFP) for a vendor to implement a plan for a “middle school within a school” concentrating on the four core subject areas (Dummy me: I always thought that’s what all schools were supposed to do).

The RFP will likely be issued at the end of February, but it’s a safe bet it will be loaded with bureaucratic restrictions making it unattractive to successful education reform organizations. Same old, same old.

Parents are fed up with this kind of dithering.

A recent survey conducted jointly by the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy and the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) demonstrated that voters, black parents in particular, want more options for their children.

More than three-quarters of voters in black Petersburg, Richmond and Norfolk neighborhoods said they support parental choice. Their support was across-the-board for personal income tax credits (68 percent), business tax credits (65 percent), publicly-funded scholarships for students with disabilities (89 percent) and public charter schools (70 percent).

The easiest reform to implement would be creating quality charter schools. Schools like KIPP Academy Charters ( are ranked number one in places like New York City, Washington, DC, Baltimore and New Orleans. Their student populations are just as challenged as those in nearby neighborhood schools, but their “No Excuses” and paternalistic approach means children learning inside their walls have a track record of heading to college, regardless of their socio-economic background.

But contrary to the clear support offered in the Jefferson-BAEO survey, charter schools remain dirty words in Virginia – a legacy of the Commonwealth’s years of “Massive Resistance” when the word “choice” really meant “segregation.”

The race-based choice of the ‘50s and ‘60s, however, is not the freedom-based choice of the 21st century. While charters have a great deal of flexibility in hiring teachers and setting policies, they are public schools serving the same kids in the same neighborhoods as the nearby local school.

And while Virginia has a charter law, it’s a charter law that has produced few charters. One reason is the lack of expertise among local school boards in recognizing a quality charter from one organized by well-meaning citizens who want to do something and struggle to find the right formula.

Developing a successful charter takes expertise. So does recognizing what a successful “outside- the- box” charter looks like. Under the current system local school boards serve as the only chartering authorizer, making it unlikely that expertise will flourish without an injection of new ideas.

But knowing what you are doing can make a dramatic difference for kids. A recent report on Washington, DC’s charter schools noted that of the top ten middle schools, seven are public charter schools and five of those were chartered by the DC Charter School Board – a separate entity with the capability to recognize quality charters.

One idea fostered by former Delegate (current Richmond Mayor) Dwight Jones was to expand charters to universities. They know best the kind of rigors demanded by colleges and the development of such “partnership schools” could have a demonstrable effect on education, creating fresh links between K-12 schools and colleges – from public to private and including Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

A second idea would be to simply hire the experts. Charter applicants can currently ask the State Board of Education to review their applications – but neither the Board nor the state’s Education Department have the necessary know-how. So why not contract with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, whose membership includes charter school boards and traditional public school systems, to examine and help weed out the good from the bad from the merely adequate?

One thing is certain. To tolerate failing performance – to allow students to educationally wither away to a future of failure – for five years or more while viable solutions exist is nothing short of immoral.

Photo on homepage used under a creative commons license from Extra Ketchup.

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