Charter Schools

Democrats Suddenly Discover the Virtues of Local Control

Virginia Democrats make an opportunistic case against charter schools.


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.

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  2. Democrats like local control when it suits them. Republicans like the will of local voters when it suits them. It’s almost as though stated principles didn’t actually matter, but that’s just silly talk, isn’t it?

  3. giving the state a way to impose charter schools on communities, potentially against their wishes, is not the solution we need

    I’m sure they’re flooded every day with calls from constituents demanding that no charter schools open in their district.

    1. Trust me, as a resident of Alexandria (consistently the national champ in the “worst bang for your buck” school system ratings), I can attest to the fact that my neighbors would pop champagne corks at the arrival of charter options.

      Our local government spends like $20,000 per student on a school system that is regarded as a disaster, and people have virtually no options beyond their neighborhood school (which all feed into the city’s one high school, TC Williams).

      The problem is that the people with the highest stakes here — poor, working class and middle class parents with multiple children — don’t have anything close to the time on their hands to generate public outrage, show up at countless meetings, research and push reform proposals, or even run for school board themselves.

      Meanwhile, the retired residents just want the system to spend less money overall so their property taxes come down, and my rich neighbors don’t really care, because they all go private.

      Thankfully, Virginia at the state level has some of the best laws protecting home-schoolers, or we wouldn’t have a chance here.

      1. (which all feed into the city’s one high school, TC Williams


        1. Haha, I know. I’m not black, but my kids are, so in any case I have no interest in government using force to divide students by pigmentation.

          But TC has a weird motto known to locals: “Yale or Jail.”

          Meaning, the school has tons of resources (including a planetarium. Yes, an actual planetarium) that they use to lavish attention on a small group of self-motivated high achievers who give the test scores a lift (Yale). The rest of the money is spent on all manner of translators, counselors, social workers and security guards paying attention to the huge amount (I think 75%) of kids coming from households below the poverty line (a lot of public housing/immigrant neighborhoods with Salvadorans and Ethiopians).

          It’s the kids in the middle who get ignored, so they’re the ones whose parents eventually flee to Loudon County.

          And as the other poster mentioned, the tax base is sustained by an endless churn of young yuppies who buy condos the year they get married, then sell them (or move out and rent) as soon as their kids turn five.

          Introducing some choice and parental empowerment in all this could do nothing but help.

      2. Hi from a recovered Alexandria resident. At least in the neighborhood where I lived, the long-term residents either no longer had school-age kids or never had had any. My neighbors with a large family moved out once the kids were old enough that school became an issue. We also had a lot of SWPL voters who were endlessly indulgent of high taxes and poor public services and were sure that people in local government are there only because the Lord Most High wants them there.

  4. “calling the notion, as state Sen. Lynwood Lewis put it, “radical.””

    Yeah, dude, it’s really radical!

    Wait, the Senator was making that out to be a *bad* thing?

    That’s heinous!

  5. So Virginia has essentially a certificate of need system in place for education?

  6. Democrats are just repeating their history of opposing local control:

    The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them.

    1. Ah, yes, the good old South Carolina Declaration of Secession.

      Those crazy states-righters!…..carsec.asp

  7. It’s almost as if Democrats don’t give a fig about local control

    It’s almost as if big government D’s (and R’s) don’t harbor any actual principles.

    1. It’s almost like Coke versus Pepsi?

      1. Yep, birds of a feather.

  8. This is a strange article because Democratic pollsters show that more than 70% of Democrats favor charter schools and other local education control measures.

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