Charter Schools

Will Charter Schools Ever Get Off the Ground in Virginia?

Politicians doing their best to stop them.


Don Soifer is far more jovial than anyone trying to expedite charter schools in Virginia should be. The executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, does not seem discouraged by the degree to which public-school reform has left the commonwealth behind. To the north, Maryland has 50 charter schools—and a Republican governor who wants more. The District of Columbia, where Soifer serves on the board governing charter schools, has 110. To the south, North Carolina has more than 150.

Virginia has nine. Soifer says the number of genuine charter schools—those started by outside groups of citizens rather than school districts—is really only two: the Patrick Henry School for Science and the Arts in Richmond, and Albemarle's Community Public Charter School in Charlottesville.

That number might rise—albeit at a glacial pace—if a constitutional amendment sponsored by state Sen. Mark Obenshain wins legislative passage a second time, which it must before it can go on the ballot for voter approval. Soifer, who was in Richmond last week for a meeting with other charter advocates, thinks it will pass the House of Delegates easily. He is not so sanguine about the Senate.

Charter schools face several obstacles in the Old Dominion. For a long time, one of them was race. The idea of letting people choose a different school stirred bitter memories among old-timers in the African-American community who remember all too well the deplorable days of Massive Resistance to school integration.

Those concerns have dwindled with the passage of time, with the embrace of charter schools by black leaders such as President Obama—and with their success in heavily black areas such as the District and New Orleans. But charter schools in Virginia still face other issues.

One is the presence of magnet schools, inter-jurisdictional Governor's Schools, and specialty schools within school districts—all of them good developments that tend to reduce the need for charter schools. What's more, many suburban school systems experience little demand for charters because they perform so well themselves. Families with the financial means to exercise school choice by moving to a nicer neighborhood have little reason to care whether charter schools succeed.

Misinformation presents another hurdle. Democratic Del. Kenneth Plum spread one of the most common myths late last year when he wrote that "charter schools… would drain resources from public schools." This makes as much sense as saying a new bus route drains resources from public transportation—because, of course, charter schools are public schools. In fact, because charter schools usually spend less per pupil, they leave the rest of a school system with more money, not less, for its remaining students.

The biggest obstacle, however, is the public-education establishment—which is loath to delegate even minimal control to somebody else. Hence it is prone to argue that charter schools perform poorly; that they employ unqualified teachers, or have high turnover, or have endured cases of embezzlement or other offenses by faculty and staff. Which, in isolated cases, is no doubt true.

But then the same things also are true of traditional public schools. The difference is that when a charter school is poorly managed or can't teach the kids, officials shut it down. Soifer says the District of Columbia has revoked 29 charters, all told (many of them because the schools never caught on, rather than because they failed to perform).

When is the last time officials closed a public school for mismanagement or for failing to perform? Even when schools with woeful records fail time and again, they don't get shut down. They get rehabilitation plans and special attention. Peabody Middle School in Petersburg has been denied accreditation through Virginia's Standards of Learning for 10 straight years. But "We have to (forget) the last 9 years," Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) told a crowd at Peabody in 2014. "Let us know what you need from us."

Obenshain's amendment would allow the State Board of Education, not just local school boards, to approve charter schools. Even if it passes, though, a lot of blanks need to be filled in. The actual constitutional language must be passed in a separate bill. And there's the financing question. In Virginia, the state funds about half the total bill for local schools. Who pays for a charter school rejected by the district but approved by the state?

Questions like those could be used once again to thwart progress on what amounts to a very minor reform—which is why the reform movement needs the cheerful grit of advocates like Soifer.

This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.