Charter Pulse

Selected readings on US charter schools

A slow start for charter schools in VIRGINIA

go_fasterOn Friday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) visited the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts in Richmond, part of the congressman’s recent efforts to make K-12 school reform a greater part of his agenda.

Warm fuzzies aside, the charter school picture in Virginia is bleak. Despite gradually gaining mainstream acceptance from Republicans, Democrats, parents, filmmakers, and pop musicians — thereby becoming fairly low-hanging fruit for reform-minded politicians — charter schools have yet to take root in Virginia. There are only four charter schools across the entire state. (Contrast that with 159 in New York City alone.) Virginia also received an F — placing 42nd out of the 43 states studied — on the Center for Education Reform’s 2013 Charter School Law Rankings.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell has had some success on a couple other school reform efforts (for example, in signing a law that gives tax breaks to businesses and individuals who help fund private school tuitions for low-income students) but failed in his proposal to allow the state’s Board of Education to approve charter school applications, which would have made it easier for more charters to spring up.

Of course, charter schools aren’t the end-all, be-all of school reform. There are other interesting efforts going on across the country. Take Louisiana, which has drilled the choice question down from schools to actually experimenting with letting students choose individual classes from different providers. (For more school reform strategies, check out AEI’s recent Roadmap for Education Reform.) Nor are charters a panacea: there are good charter schools and bad ones, and how a school is created and regulated are important design questions that ultimately determine success. Still, given the increasing popularity of charter schools, and given Cantor and McDonnell’s declarations of support, it’s surprising to see such little growth in Virginia.

What needs to change? Here are a few very basic suggestions. At the state level, Governor McDonnell and state legislators can:

  • Expand the number of charter school authorizers. An authorizer is a group permitted by the state to field applications, approve, and ultimately monitor the performance of charter schools. The more authorizers, the easier it is to open new schools and ensure quality. Currently, only local school systems create and oversee charter schools in Virginia. The state could look to leaders like Michigan, which allows public universities to serve as authorizers, or Washington, DC, where the DC Public Charter School Board serves as an independent authorizer (and an effective one: DC has 57 charter schools enrolling just over 40% of DC public school students).
  • Grant full funding to charter schools. Charter schools, despite frequent cries by opponents about “privatizing education,” are in fact public schools, and deserve to receive the same funding as traditional district schools. Again, Michigan and Washington, DC, stand out as leaders in this regard.
  • Ensure adequate performance. This includes annually evaluating charters on student performance, financial management, and other outcomes as determined in the school’s charter, and swiftly revoking the charters of underperforming schools.

At the federal level, Representative Cantor isn’t powerless, either. While the center of action for schooling lies with the states, my colleagues Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly argue that, among other things, “the feds have played a vital role in collecting common data, fostering transparency, and otherwise keeping score across states and districts.” Shining a spotlight on state performance would help paint a clearer picture of which models are working, and provide useful lessons to other states looking to replicate.

It’s important to have highly-visible political leaders using their platforms to tout charter schools, and I applaud Cantor and McDonnell for their sentiments. But it’s going to take a lot more than a PR visit to fuel charter school growth in the Old Dominion. The above is all school reform 101, but is the right place to start if Virginia is serious about moving forward.

Source: AEI Ideas Blog – Daniel Lautzenheiser

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This entry was posted on June 11, 2013 by in Advocacy, Charter Schools, Virginia.

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