Charter Schools Looking Like a Political Winner

Sen. Chap Petersen.

by James A. Bacon

Virginia has long been one of the most difficult states in the country in which to form charter schools — publicly funded schools independent of school board control. There are only seven such schools in the state, and they enroll only 1,300 students. But the odds of change look better than ever.

N0t only has Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin vowed to create at least 20 new charter schools in Virginia’s public school system — the first time a Virginia governor has made charter school reform a top priority — but two key Democrats in the state Senate are open to easing the restrictions.

Sen. Joe Morrissey

Virginia Democrats are nearly monolithic in their opposition to charters, which they regard as a threat to educational equity. With a 21- to 19-seat majority in the state Senate, they are in a position to block any legislative initiative proposed by Youngkin. But Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, are dissatisfied with the educational status quo and have signaled a willingness to work with Republicans on the issue.

Also critical to the political calculus, public opinion in Virginia may be more receptive to charter schools than ever in the past. A parents’ revolt against “progressive” policies that water down educational standards in the name of racial “equity” helped elect Youngkin. At the same time, the Northam administration has presided over the greatest collapse in public school learning since the implementation of Standards of Learning (SOL) testing, and, arguably, in the state’s history.

Between the undermining of standards and the challenges of the COVID epidemic, learning wilted. Pass rates for every racial/ethnic group hit record lows, but the decline was most disastrous for Blacks — the very group singled out by “progressive” educators for special attention. Statewide, barely half (54%) passed their SOL reading exams in the 2o20/21 school year. Barely a third (34%) passed their math exams. Under current policies, half the Black kids coming through the educational pipeline will be functionally illiterate, innumerate, and incapable of fully participating in a modern-day knowledge economy. Never has the failure of a top-down educational system run by “progressive” ideologues been so plain for all to see.

Critics of charter schools have painted them as modern-day segregation academies reminiscent of 60s-era massive resistance to integration. Such charges could not be farther from the truth. Schools have failed most spectacularly in predominantly Black school districts. The need for charter schools — independent of school board control — is most pressing in those districts, not predominantly White districts. A change in legislation would make it possible to recruit Charter Management Organizations such as New York’s Success Academy, with proven track records in educating disadvantaged youth. (See Jim Sherlock’s columns here and here.)

Current law requires local school districts to approve new charter schools. Needless to say, school boards have been reluctant to vote yes on proposals that would dilute their budgets and control over curricula and other policies. There is no appeals process. School board decisions are final.

Petersen, however, seems willing to break from the majority Democratic view. The Virginia Mercury quotes him as follows.

Petersen said he was at a Chamber of Commerce event recently, and as he heard speakers praise Virginia’s educational system, the disconnect between frustrated families and some state officials was striking.

“I was thinking, does anyone know that schools were closed for a year, that we had 50,000 students drop out of the system?” Petersen said.

Petersen said a growing number of Democratic legislators are uncomfortable with defending the status quo.

“I can only speak for myself, but you can group the Democrats into two groups: One is (saying) ‘Nothing to see here, move along,’” Petersen said. “The other says what we’ve seen in the last two years is a little unsettling and that we need to reestablish trust in our public schools. We’ve had too many people quitting, too many families leaving the school system.”

Morrissey also has distanced himself from Democratic orthodoxy.

“Most of the Democrats, they just line up behind public schools. What public schools want, boom, they get,” Morrissey said. “I’m very much a supporter of public schools. But that doesn’t mean, though, there isn’t a place for charter schools. … Competition makes individuals, companies, school boards, school districts and schools themselves better.”

The Virginia Education Association, the primary beneficiary of the educational status quo, will be a key player in the debate. The VEA is tightly aligned with Virginia’s Democratic Party. Over the past four years, VEA donations to Democratic candidates for office have totaled $201,000 compared to $7,500 for GOP candidates.

Traditionally, VEA has been a foe of charters. Basically, VEA spokesperson Shane Riddle’s argument amounts to “don’t mess with success.”

“Right now, Virginia is ranked number four for educational outcomes in U.S. News & World-Report,” he says. Our public schools are doing a very good job,” he says. “Why do you want competition when a state is fourth in the country for educational outcomes?”

Yeah. Tell that to the Black kids of the City of Richmond public school system, where 30% passed their English reading SOLs last year, 16% passed their math SOLs, and 1.6% achieved advanced pass scores in science.

If the VEA and the majority of Democrats want to protect that legacy of abject failure, let them own it. Youngkin, Petersen and Morrissey have a winning issue.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


10 responses to “Charter Schools Looking Like a Political Winner”

  1. VaNavVet Avatar

    Petersen is right that the last two years have been a little unsettling (for all) and that there is a need to re-establish trust in our public schools. There is a place for charter schools working with local school districts and boards. Moves to undercut them will not be received well by anyone.

    1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
      Kathleen Smith

      Moves to undercut charter schools will certainly be received well by school boards. The pie is the same size, charters or not. Thus, each local school boards share of the pie could be smaller. Funding follows the kids. Morrissey has a foothold in two poor performing districts, Richmond and Petersburg. I hope that charters find a place in Virginia for the sake of the kids.

  2. Competition is feared by the incompetent.

  3. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    I am skeptical. 20 new charter schools will not move the needle. We have only 4 charter high schools that I know of in Virginia. 3 are small and 1 has a significant student body. None have demonstrated major achievements versus traditional public schools.

    In Loudoun County the lone elementary charter school in Middleburg did outperform the district and the state test scores. But not by much.

    Right around the corner in St. Louis, Virginia Benjamin Bannecker Elementary exceeded Middleburg charter test scores by a significant margin. Banneker is the only Loudoun school still in operation that can trace it’s roots back before integrated schools.

  4. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    It is going to be tricky writing this legislation. As Jim Sherlock’s posts (referenced above) point out, the leading charter school organizations are extremely reluctant to locate in localities in which the local school board has oversight authority. The Virginia Constitution vests supervision of schools in school districts in the local school boards. (This is a reflection of “local control” of schools, a value that often has priority.) It also gives the Board of Education the authority, subject to GA criteria, the power to designate school districts. There might be a way for the legislature to carve out school districts that have specially designated “school boards”.

    1. Matt Hurt Avatar
      Matt Hurt

      Could that legislation to carve out “charter districts” also potentially include provisions to exempt those charter districts from some state requirements if those districts produce acceptable outcomes? One of the problems I see is that both the General Assembly and the Board of Education have mandated specific things to be done which they believe will ensure specific student outcomes. However, the law of unintended consequences usually rears its ugly head, and those intended outcomes don’t always align with realized outcomes. In those instances, the requirements tend to serve as more of a boat anchor than a springboard. If some of these onerous requirements could be waived, pending acceptable student outcomes of course, it could possibly pave the way for innovations which could provide better outcomes for our students.

    2. Kathleen Smith Avatar
      Kathleen Smith

      The problem Matt and Dick is with the VA constitution. It gives power to the local school board and creating a charter district takes money away from the local school board. For some places, like Loudoun, it would be minimal, but for others like Petersburg and Richmond where more parents would opt for the charter district, it could be monumental. His battle for charters will be from the school boards not from the public of poor performing districts. It couldn’t happen in four years with the McDonnell administration. Unfortunate for parents. There will be a fight. Maybe his thinking is that 20 won’t create such a scare.

      The other problem is with the accreditation system as it is now. There are so many ways for schools to look okay when they are really not okay. Makes the argument even harder.

      I sat on the McDonnell committee for the Opportunity Zone. Great concept. Positively spun. School Boards Association destroyed the concept in two GA sessions. They send out the big boys and the money.

      It is, I think, a doable idea. Market driven by parents making that choice. Then there are the regulations – like how does a kid from Petersburg get to a charter school if transportation is not provided, do they have to pay for textbooks, etc.

      I have visited many charter schools. Here is my take:

      If the school can do a better job of providing an education for my kid and I as a parent align with their thinking, then why not? If I as a parent think the public school is doing a good job, then I don’t have to do anything.

      If Petersburg loses funding, so be it. At least the kids don’t suffer, but if they lose funding and only the featured few are going to the charter and the poor are not, then I have a problem with lost funding only going to the haves and not the have nots.

      The Patrick Henry Charter school in Richmond did just that. VCU profs and staff sent their kids there to flee from the public schools.

      So much to think about.

      1. Like the Arizona model?

  5. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “If the VEA and the majority of Democrats want to protect that legacy of abject failure, let them own it. Youngkin, Petersen and Morrissey have a winning issue.”

    More, “if Youngkin doesn’t deliver on his promise to open 20 new charter schools on Day 1 (or whatever the NEW deadline is) it isn’t HIS fault” BR propaganda.

Leave a Reply