Arguably the Most Ossified Public School System in the Country

Virginia doesn’t have the worst public school system in the country — we’re fair to middlin’ as measured by spending per pupil and educational outcomes — but it is arguably the most resistant to change. The latest evidence is a rejection of a charter for the Patrick Henry charter school earlier this week by the City of Richmond school board.

Keith West, one of the school’s main backers, wound up voting against the proposal on the grounds that it had been bound up by so many contract restrictions that the city was setting up the school for failure. ‘The contract “micromanages them,” he said, as reported by the Times-Dispatch. “We’re telling them how to do what they’re supposed to do.”

The elementary school would have occupied a school building that had been closed down more than a year ago, and would have offered an integrated science and arts curriculum that integrated the neighboring Forest Hill Park into the curriculum to teach “environmental awareness and social responsibility.” The school would have been funded by the usual state and city sources for schools, supplemented by private sources. It would have been governed by its own board of directors.

The school was opposed by the usual constituencies. The NAACP, the Richmond Council of PTAs and the Richmond Education Association had mobilized in protest. “We oppose any scheme that creates a private school in a public school setting,” said Melvin Law, a former School Board chairman and a Richmond NAACP branch member.

As Times-Dispatch columnist Barton Hinkle points out, there are about 4,200 charter schools across the United States. Only three are located in Virginia. Support for vouchers, an even more radical alternative to charter schools, is spreading. Opponents, he suggests aren’t worried that the school might fail — “they’re petrified that it might succeed.” In the words of one school board member, “By allowing this group to proceed, it would open the door for any other group that wants to create a school.”

As infuriating as such thinking is, it’s not restricted to the City of Richmond. Outside of one school in Albemarle County, one in the city of Hampton and one in York County, there aren’t any charter schools anywhere in Virginia. (According to the Virginia Charter School Resource Center, five other charter schools have opened and closed.)

What a disgrace. The educrats and special interests are determined to protect the current system, regardless of what it costs the children. And no one in Virginia is willing to override them.

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10 responses to “Arguably the Most Ossified Public School System in the Country”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    One of the most “magical” and expensive things involving the fear of charter schools happened in Fairfax County of all places.

    Several years ago, a number of parents of children with autism and similar disabilities approached the Fairfax County Public Schools with a request to provide what I believe is called “Applied Behavior Analysis” for their children. This program, which is an alternative educational method for autistic children, is very expensive as it provides intense one-on-one services in many instances. The student-teacher ratio for FCPS is limited to 2:1. Virginia state limits are 6:1 or 8:1 if a paraprofessional is also in the classroom to assist the teacher.

    As I recall, the parents’ request was refused based on the costs. The parents then requested permission to open a charter school. See the WaPo article.

    Suddenly, the FCPS decision-makers decided that they could, indeed, offer ABA services. Wow, the unaffordable costs became affordable once there was a risk of a charter school opening.

    The other important fact was somewhere in the midst of this battle against charter schools, FCPS ran an ABA trial with ten children with severe autism. Two children improved substantially; two children regressed substantially; and the remaining six children stayed essentially the same.

    I’m not sure that every school district would proceed with the ABA program under these circumstances; most probably wouldn’t. But it was the price to pay to prevent a charter school from opening in Fairfax County.


  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I’m curious. Where do Charter Schools get their funding?

    And who decides what the curriculum is and how achievement is measured?

    just FYI on the money issue:

    2006 numbers

    total money spend per kid in Va = $10,640

    Local = 5717
    State = 4210
    Fed = 714

    how much money are the Charter school advocates expecting to get per kid and from whom?

  3. Norman Leahy Avatar
    Norman Leahy

    Part of the problem with charter schools in Virginia, Jim, is that the law allowing for their creation is among the weakest in the nation — they are basically charters in name only, because many of the rules, regulations and strictures that apply to public schools apply to them, too (right down to labor contracts, if I remember correctly).

  4. Shennen Dean Avatar
    Shennen Dean

    I’m the editor of and I’d like to invite those who are interested in better understanding some of the issues that have been raised regarding charter schools and the school board to read an article I have just published:

    Please be aware that this article is not intended to have a political or social slant, but rather to make clear the issues present. It is my humble hope that this will help.

    Shennen Dean

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    “environmental awareness and social responsibility.”

    Oh brother, this makes it sound like someone assumes they are the same. Who is going to teach the part about when those two items conflict?

  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Mr. Dean – THANK YOU for enlightenment and I encourage other readers to avail themselves of his article.

    Here’s a passage that I would encourage further discussion:

    “Charter schools are publicly funded elementary or secondary schools that have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools,

    … in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each charter school’s charter.”

    My reading of this is …FURTHER accountability …over and above SOLs/NCLB….

    … which I would support….

    if the idea is to allow removal of factors that inhibit increased achievement – I agree – we need to try new/different methods….

    … but I also note that the code and the NEA specifically condemn the idea of using Charter Schools as an end-around implementation of ..essentially private schools with selective enrollment standards…


  7. TMT:

    I can live with your complaints against the Tyson’s Land Use Task Force. I can understand your frustration with Fairfax County zoning. However, I believe your attack on the Fairfax County Public School system is unwarranted. Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun run exemplary school systems. I speak from experience being a graduate of Fairfax County’s public schools myself. Even the worst schools in the county are excellent schools. Contrast this to other areas in Virginia where there are a few good schools and plenty of bad schools. There is not one bad public high school in Fairfax County – not one. Again, I speak from experience. Groveton High School was universally considered the worst academic high school in Fairfax County when I graduated. Given that, I assumed that I would struggle with the courses at the University of Virginia. I was wrong. My friends from Groveton and I all did fine. The kids from Arlington did fine. The out-of-staters did fine. It was the kids from RoVA who struggled. I spent countless hours tutoring kids from Richmond in calculus. Many were very poorly prepared for college level math despite having attended schools that were considered among the best in their area. I find it interesting that you draw conclusions about the autism program from a sample of 10 children. Where did you learn your statistics?

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    Groveton – Obviously, I didn’t take the time to be a clear as I should have been.

    My point is Fairfax County Public Schools refused to implement the ABA program because it was too expensive and the results too tentative, as shown by the 10-student trial. I cited the 10-student trial because that was one of the major decision-making factors used by the administration and school board. Sauce for the goose!

    Parents of children with autism were not satisfied, so they started the ball rolling to open a charter school that would offer the ABA program.

    When faced with the risk that a charter school might open, the unaffordable program with only tentative results suddenly became acceptable.

    I don’t think that decisions about academic programs, especially novel and unproved ones, should be made to avoid the opening of a charter school. But that’s what happened.

    Fairfax County Public Schools are fine schools — hardly perfect, according to a number of complaints I’ve heard over the years — but still fine schools generally. My two kids attend FCPS by our choice.

    The school administration, on the other hand, is overgrown, rigid and generally unresponsive. This is not to say that every suggestion from a parent group or other organization should be adopted.

    By and large, the administration seeks only to maximize spending and keep control over all aspects of management. I’ve heard this criticism made by everyone from Gerry Connolly to individual parents to some teachers.

    Fairfax County Public Schools have resisted any attempt to contract for administrative and support services. It has generally refused to consider contracting for transportation, food service, janitorial services, etc. At the same time, the administration play cozy with big developers, refusing to insist on fair contributions to capital needs from development.

    A number of parents have tried to work with FCPS to change start times for high school students by addressing the transportation system in ways that will not add millions of extra dollars to operating costs. But they’ve only been blown off. I’m not arguing that parents were right; only that the Schools never had any intention of working in good faith.

    Similarly, a number of parents have raised questions about the current 6-point grading system. FCPS is considering the issue, but only to a point, if one talks with many of the parents deeply involved.

    The school board has consistently fought attempts by the BoS and county management to consolidate functions between the schools and the county. Etc.

    To my way of thinking, resources are not managed by FCPS as well as Fairfax County manages resources and that the FCPS school administration and school board don’t always operate with the best interests of either students, parenets or taxpayers. That doesn’t mean that the schools are bad — far from it.


    I hope I’ve made my points more clearly.

  9. TMT:

    I appreciate your explanation. As a graduate of FCPS with a son who graduated from Langley High School last June I am well acquainted with the strengths and weaknesses of the school system.

    My counter-point to your first post was in reference to the original article by Jim Bacon. In that original article Jim Bacon wrote, "Virginia doesn't have the worst public school system in the country — we're fair to middlin' as measured by spending per pupil and educational outcomes — but it is arguably the most resistant to change.".

    Fair to middlin' is an unacceptable result. It is particularly unacceptable when one considers that a number of Virginia's large public school systems (e.g. Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun County) are extremely well regarded. The combination of "fair to middlin'" as a state average with several of the largest systems performing extremely well has me wondering about the Virginia school systems outside of Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun. I am challenged to understand your post about the failure of charter schools in Fairfax County beyond it being an example of politically inspired avoidance of new ideas. If Fairfax County can establish and operate one of the best public school systems in the country without any need for charter schools, doesn't that argue aginst the need for charter schools to improved educational standards elsewhere in Virginia?

    I also feel compelled to chastise Jim Bacon, once again, for his unstinting adolation of Virginia regionalism. Mr. Bacon is very quick to point out relatively small business successes in Richmond when discussing state-wide economic conditions. He is quick to declare Northern Virginians selfish based on the ill-considered and off-hand comments of a single NoVA legislator (Saslaw). He pays great attention to matters concerning VCU (and the tobacco industry), UVA (and climate change) and William & Mary (some controversy over a cross). Yet he cannot bring himself to write about the success of Northern Virginia's public school systems or the fact that George Mason University was recently rated the #1 university to watch on the just-released 2008 list of up and coming universities. To wit:

    Since I am apparently the only citizen of Northern Virginia who is proud of Northern Virginia I feel the need to challenege the widespread notion that NoVA has nothing to offer. If RoVA ran their school systems to the same level of achievement as NoVA perhaps we would not need the flood of money going from North to South in an attempt to forestall an economic decline predestined for those who underemphasize the education of their youth. The need for charter schools has been proven inconsequential by the success of school systems in Virginia that operate without any substantial use of charter schools. The real issue revolves around localities like Henrico County which are all too quick to trade local funding contributions to the education of their own children for tax breaks financed by other citizens of the Commonwealth.

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    Groveton – It strikes me that, in a county as large and diverse as Fairfax, there is a greater need for some flexibility in education. For example, FCPS operates a number (4 or 5) of alternative high schools, in part, because there are some students who can’t seem to make it as well in a traditional high school.

    I just think that there is probably room for a couple of charter schools too. It might be interesting to see how well or how poorly they can function without all of the bureaucratic trappings that come with FCPS.

    What I see is a bureaucracy that will not let go of anything — ever.


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