Virginia's charter-school system is notoriously weak. While other states from New York to Louisiana have moved forward by offering more education options, Virginia has remained stuck in the past. There are roughly 5,700 charter schools across the country. Virginia has six.
This is partly owing to the way Virginia gives school boards veto power over charter schools. If the local education establishment does not want any competition or experimentation—and why would it?—it can simply say no.
The state Senate recently passed a measure, sponsored by Mark Obenshain, to address this problem by allowing the state Board of Education to approve local charter schools, subject to guidelines the General Assembly would write. A House measure sponsored by Del. Rob Bell passed Tuesday.
The Senate bill passed on a party-line vote. Democrats issued statements calling the notion, as state Sen. Lynwood Lewis put it, "radical."
"Charter schools have a role to play in education, but we shouldn't be imposing them on communities in a top-down process," said Loudoun Sen. Jennifer Wexton. Her colleague Barbara Favola agreed: "We have to do more to ensure that every child in Virginia has access to a great education—but giving the state a way to impose charter schools on communities, potentially against their wishes, is not the solution we need."
It sure is nice to see Democrats, heretofore not known for their opposition to top-down mandates, discover the virtues of local autonomy.
Why, it was just a couple of weeks ago that the Senate Education and Health Committee rejected a proposal to let local school divisions set their own calendars instead of obeying the statewide law that forbids them to open before Labor Day. Among those voting to spike that measure: one Lynwood Lewis. Joining him were Democrats George Barker, Dick Saslaw and Louise Lucas.
A couple of weeks before that, Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced a plan to replace voting machines throughout the state. Up to now localities have been able to decide for themselves what kind of voting machines to use. The governor wants to end that autonomy, by making sure every locality has the latest in digital-scan technology machines that can produce paper trails. He is prepared to spend $28 million for what he admits is an "unprecedented" step.
Listen. Hear that peculiar silence? It's the sound of Virginia Democrats not griping about how this top-down edict would deprive cities and counties of local control.
You also didn't hear Virginia Democrats cheering Republican proposals to turn Medicaid into a block-grant program. Nor did the hills ring with their applause when the Supreme Court ruled the federal government could not force states to expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act. Nor did they show any enthusiasm for a tea party proposal back in 2011 that would have let the states nullify federal laws and regulations by a two-thirds vote.
The Democratic Party of Virginia supports a "comprehensive statewide water strategy" rather than local control. It wants the state's Department of Education "to set high level expectations of performance for all of Virginia's students," rather than let localities set their own expectations.
According to the party, McAuliffe "was proud to sign Standards of Learning reform legislation, to make Virginia's education system work better for students, teachers, and our schools." But wait—don't the SOLs amount to a top-down policy imposed on all localities, potentially against their wishes? They sure do.
And what about the Dillon Rule? For decades, it has robbed cities and counties of the ability to make even minor changes without going, hat in hand, to the assembly. If a member of a county board of supervisors wants to blow her nose, she has to get the state's permission first. Most of Virginia's Democratic lawmakers, like their Republican counterparts, find that perfectly acceptable.
Gee whiz. It's almost as if Democrats don't give a fig about local control—and are just using it as a handy excuse to oppose parents having any more control over children's education.
Could any politician in this cradle of gentility and honor be that cynical? Perish the very thought.