Can Charter Schools Reverse Richmond’s Enrollment Decline?

Richmond city schools enrollment by grade.

Virginia is notorious for its hostility toward charter schools. In the Old Dominion, charter schools must be approved by local school boards, which see educational alternatives as a threat rather than a potential blessing. Virginia has a grand total of eight charter schools, compared to 88 in New Jersey, a state with comparable school enrollment.

Among the commonly cited reasons for opposing charter schools is that they siphon away money from non-chartered public schools. The questionable assumption here is that existing schools can do a better job with the money than the charter schools can.

In the City of Richmond, which has the worst schools in the entire state (excepting possibly Petersburg), the School Board has permitted two charter schools, including one for kids with cognitive disabilities. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, a strong majority of school board members opposes creation of any more.

“In order to deliver on the promise of the American dream, we must aim for a public education system where every school is a good school,” said Kenya Gibson, who represents the city’s 3rd District, when running for School Board last year. “Corporate reforms, including the charter industry, are antithetical to this goal.”

Here’s a question for Gibson and others who oppose charter schools: Which drains more resources from Richmond Public Schools — a couple of charter schools or a school system that is so atrociously bad that every parent who can afford to do so sends their kids to private school or moves to a neighboring county?

The chart above, created by John Butcher of Cranky’s Blog fame, shows how enrollment remains strong in elementary schools, nine of which meet the benchmark for accreditation on the reading tests. Then in middle schools, educational attainment plummets — and, not surprisingly, so does enrollment. Each student who leaves represents the loss of thousands of dollars in state funds. How much money is the school district bleeding because of this exodus?

What if creating a charter middle school helped reverse plummeting enrollment and brought more money into the school district? When you have the worst schools and worst academic attainment in the entire state, isn’t it time to try something new?

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4 responses to “Can Charter Schools Reverse Richmond’s Enrollment Decline?

  1. re: ” The chart above, created by John Butcher of Cranky’s Blog fame, shows how enrollment remains strong in elementary schools, nine of which meet the benchmark for accreditation on the reading tests. Then in middle schools, educational attainment plummets — and, not surprisingly, so does enrollment. Each student who leaves represents the loss of thousands of dollars in state funds. How much money is the school district bleeding because of this exodus?”

    this might be another one of those interpretation of data things.

    Elementary schools is critical for later success in middle and high but more than that – one would think the reason most kids go to elementary school in Richmond is that their parents live in Richmond and not in Henrico or Chesterfield because they would have gone to those counties first if they could have – income-wise. In other words, how many people with good incomes CHOOSE to live in Richmond and send their kids to Richmond schools rather follow others with good incomes to the suburbs where the schools tend to be better?

    For the ones who have good income and actually choose to live in Richmond – I suspect they start their kids off in private schools.

    So, I have my doubts that folks living in Richmond send their kids to private schools. Perhaps look at the number of enrollment in private schools in Richmond as well as what the middle and high school drop-out rate is.

    • Larry,

      As a parent with young children in the city, who has the means to move to the counties if desired, I can tell you that Crankys data and this analysis match precisely with the conversations I have with my peers. While some do move to the counties, there are a lot of us who love city living and walkable communities, and are willing to send our kids to Fox, Mumford, Holton, etc for elementary (or Patrick Henry, charters!). We love the communities, want to make a difference, expose our kids to diversity, and this is within our acceptable risk profile.

      The middle schools are commonly perceived as trash though, as are most of the high schools. The ten year plan is then to try and thread the Binford/Open needle, send kids private, or move to the suburbs.

      Richmond needs innovation, particularly at the middle school level, and charters are a great way to do this.

      • @wonderbread – I guess I’m still a little skeptical in terms of overall population. If someone can afford to send their kids to private schools for middle/high why not for elementary?

        But you made a very interesting point when you said: ” there are a lot of us who love city living and walkable communities, and are willing to send our kids ” … that sounds a bit perverse to be honest. Suffice to say – that’s not my idea of “walkable” nor “diversity”!!!!

        My perception of RIchmond, by the way is similar, that there are some “enclaves” of “good neighborhoods” but they are in the midst of a lot of the “other kind” and those other kind places – you do NOT walk in especially at night nor do your kids – when they are back home from school.

        Some as you have said, characterize that as an “acceptable risk” but only in some respects… not across the board.

        The basic problem with Charters/other non-public “choice” is that if people could – they’d have de-facto private schools for their kids instead of sending them to the “public” schools where there are all kinds of “issues” including that “diversity” because by-law “public” schools have no choice but to educate everyone and private schools (and Charters) do not. As such – it’s motivated by the same sentiment behind white flight to the suburbs with a “have your cake and eat it too” aspect to it.

        I’m of the view that cities are tough places to live if one values safety and security and wants the freedom to have it wherever you walk or travel and most cities are not that way; there are places you do not go especially at night if you value your safety and life – and yes… the kids that actually live in those dangerous places – go to school and they have a totally different mindset about many things.

        We did a simple trip to the Smithsonian in DC about a month ago and the idea was to go as a group – park in a garage, get dinner, then walk to the Museum of Natural History – and those more familiar told us in no uncertain terms that THAT was a BAD PLAN – that you do NOT want to be on foot at night – even within eyesight of the Smithsonian.

        Trying to raise kids in that “diverse” and “walkable” environment is a juggling act and perhaps it teaches a necessary life skill that I never got an education in.

  2. On the Charter School question – this has a familiar “what do you have to lose” ring to it.

    The reason they oppose them is that most of them really don’t want the demographics of low-income, at-risk, learning disabled but rather to cherry-pick.

    I’d be more than fine if a school promised to take that demographic AND be transparent about performance – and actually demonstrate that they are, in fact, superior.

    There is no question that public schools – not all of them – but a good number of them don’t do so well with the tougher demographics and so I support other approaches that actually deal with the problem – and are held accountable but well-qualified veteran teachers who are successful with the tougher demographic are not going to leave public schools with good pensions and benefits to go to a Charter unless it has equivalent pay and benefits. How many Charters are going to have the full range of programs and activities that public schools have?

    Basically we need to know what a Charter will do that public schools are not doing… otherwise it’s pig in a poke or out of the frying pan and into the fire.

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