School Choice Virginia

Virginia has a top-down public educational system in which many policies and procedures are dictated by a large educational bureaucracy in Virginia. The Old Dominion, which professedly believes in competition, has among the fewest charter schools of any state in the country. And automatic funding formulas (the Standards of Quality) ensure that taxpayers ratchet state aid for K-12 public education relentlessly higher with little accountability: The main impact of the Standards of Learning, implemented with the dream of creating accountability, has been to incentivize schools and teachers to “teach to the test.”

Despite these obstacles, some public school systems manage to accomplish remarkable things. I’m impressed by the quality of the education provided by Henrico County schools, for instance, on a shoestring — with significantly less spending per pupil than the neighboring City of Richmond. While students in suburban school districts fare reasonably well, students in municipalities like Richmond and Petersburg are terribly short-changed. Worse, they have no option — other than moving into neighboring jurisdictions, which many cannot afford — to improve their lot.

That’s why I’m delighted to note the appearance of a new group on the scene, School Choice Virginia, a non-partisan not-for-profit organization dedicated to expanding “educational choices for Virginia families.”

Founded by Del. Chris Saxman, R-Staunton, the group is supported by the Family Foundation, the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, the Virginia Council for Private Education, the Home Educators Association of Virginia, the Virginia Catholic Conference, the Old Dominion Association of Church Schools and even a representative of the Richmond City School Board.

At the moment, School Choice Virginia’s main presence in the marketplace of ideas is a blog, which tracks the “school choice” movement in Virginia and across the country.

The unwillingness to explore alternatives to the bureaucratic — nay, sclerotic — public education system we have in Virginia is, to my mind, one of the greatest indictments that can be leveled against Virginia’s political class. Let us hope that this new group can re-frame the educational debate from “mo’ money” to “mo’ reform.”

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11 responses to “School Choice Virginia”

  1. Whitney Avatar

    Thank you for your post and your welcome. You hit the nail on the head- Virginia is fortunate to have some very good public schools, and even some good overall districts; unfortunately, not every child has access to those schools. Our goal with School Choice Virginia is to help improve educational opportunities for all students by giving them all access to affordable options that best meet their unique learning needs. And as you probably know, study after study has demonstrated that school choice and competition also benefits public schools as well.

    Across the country we see significant educational reforms taking place. Leaders on both sides of the political aisle are recognizing the need for meaningful reforms and are stepping up to the challenge.

    We look forward to building our presence in the marketplace of ideas, and hope you and the readers of your blog will come visit us over at to learn more.

    Thanks again,

  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Here’s the latest on Virginia’s Public Schools:

    Schools that:

    Made AYP 1355 74%
    Did Not Make AYP 479 25%

    Va School Systems that:

    Made AYP 54( 41% )
    Did not make AYP 78( 59% )

    AYP – means about 75% of the kids – in all economic, gender and race classes passed SOL standards.

    or another way of looking at it – 25% – 1/4 of kids don’t make it.

    So… tell me how the school choice schools compare with their achievement standards….

    Should we believe that merely because a school is not a public school that it will perform better?

    How would we know?

    Why would we allow separate “school choice” schools to not have to meet the same standards as NCLB/AYP if tax dollars are involved?

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Larry, Why should *we* be making the choice about what standards are best for children? Why isn’t the public policy default position that *parents* are the ones who should make decisions about what’s best for their very own children?

  4. Chris Saxman Avatar
    Chris Saxman


    Thanks for the post about school choice.

    Remember, more often than not school choice in Virginia is about parents choosing a different public school than the one that is drawn to serve their children.

    Also, private schools do have accountability standards if they belong to the Virginia Council of Private Education and that is referenced in the Code of Virginia.

    While we have drawn into my legislation accountability standards, we have to remember that ultimate accountability should rest with the customer.

    In Virginia higher education where Virginia resident students get Tuition Assistance Grants (vouchers by another name, no one ever raises questions on the accountability of that money or the money spent on higher education for that matter. The primary selling point for TAG grants in highed ed? It saves money and creates more competition with the private sector which has helped build one of the, if not THE, best higher ed system in the country.

  5. Whitney Avatar

    Jim and Chris beat me to the punch.

    Shouldn’t ultimate accountability rest with the parents? Is the system working now for those 1 in 4 kids who “aren’t making it?” What options are there for a parent with children assigned to those schools?

    Larry, I would encourage you to take a look at the many different school choice programs that have already been implemented across the country. The positive results speak for themselves, which may be why Republican and Democrat leaders alike are working together to ensure more children have access to educational choices.

  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “Why isn’t the public policy default position that *parents* are the ones who should make decisions about what’s best for their very own children?”

    glad you asked.

    it is because of the kids who have troubles – a very high percentage of them are in disadvantageous parental conditions…

    it is these kids that get “left behind” because mom or dad or both are gone or…virtually gone…and it is these kids that have but one chance in life – a decent education.

    a system that says it is up to the parents is a system that will fail

    and it fails twice:

    1. – it fails morally because “we” blame kids for the faults of AWOL parenting.

    2. – it fails fiscally – because your kids will grow up to pay higher and higher taxes to support kids who did not get a decent education.

    I’m very much in favor of a competitive environment and I think the current system is not as cost-effective as it might be – as it has a culture of almost always throwing more money at the problem…

    however.. if we are going to take tax dollars and turn it into a “voucher” for the kinds of parents who are already AWOLk for their kids education…

    .. we will be repeating the educational equivalent of the current Fannie/Freddie problem where we set up the perfect environment for predatory lenders except in this case – we’ll be enriching predatory private schools if they don’t have similar accountability standards.

    For the life of me, I cannot understand why folks don’t see this risk…

    I’m for choice – and a level playing field that ASSURES that kids who are already semi-abandoned – can succeed.

    Not all will make it. Some will fail no matter what we do but it’s morally repugnant for us as a society to abandon them after their parents have….

    we need a wake-up call with respect to WHICH kids are not making NCLB .. HINT: – it’s NOT the kids with good parental support.

  7. Whitney Avatar

    Larry, first of all, school choice is not about taking away public schools- and certainly not about abandoning children in those public schools. If anything, as I noted before, choice and competition has been shown time and time again to benefit public schools as well- meaning that all students can benefit from choice- whether they leave public schools or not. Choice gives families a chance, regardless of their financial situation, rather than restricting them based on their current situation.

    Secondly, you are right that parental involvement is one important key to educational success. However, it is rather elitist to suggest that all kids who are failing have AWOL parents, or that the parents of kids who are failing do not care how their children are educated. Sadly, for many families, they have no options for their children- they cannot afford to live in neighborhoods with good, safe schools, and they certainly cannot afford to pay tuition for a private schools. Children are being raised in single-parents homes, with grandparents, with foster parents- parents who are doing the best they can and are capable of making educational choices for their kids- if the “system” would let them.

    Why are their 4 children applying for every voucher available for students in the District of Columbia? It isn’t because parents aren’t doing their job. It’s because the public school system is failing miserably. Why were parents lined up out the door for the new school choice program in Louisiana?

    Why are Democrat leaders- including PA Governor Ed Rendell and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle signing into law huge expansion of school choice programs? It’s because they see those programs working, providing real hope and opportunity for students who deperately need it.

    Why did Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack support choice legislation for their states? Because they realize that the stutus quo isn’t working. And our kids deserve better.

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    One of the sub-groups tracked on NCLB is .. kids on subsidized lunches..

    .. and what you’ll find if you look into it is that even at good schools, there is a high correlation of low test scores in this group.

    ..Consider also.. that there might be a single mom.. with more than one kid.. not getting child support..working long hours to try to keep us and herself not even having finished high school…

    often.. these kids transfer to different schools, more than once.. with non-uniform curricula that will leave holes even for conscientious students…

    “choice” will not help these kids if the school they are already is a school with a good SOL record but a school that has high numbers of subsidized lunch kids not doing well.

    what that indicates is a lack of programs and resources directed at those kids who have some different needs than the kids who have much better parental support.

    On the subject of failing urban schools – I agree. We have a serious, serious problem … almost nationally… and especially so where the school system is unionized and/or seems to have a level of patronage, etc.

    but what you would accomplish in these schools is to have a situation were only “lucky” kids escaped and the others consigned to an even lower level of purgatory.

    By the way – here are the School Divisions in Va that MADE AYP:

    “Accomack County”
    “Alleghany County”
    “Amelia County”
    “Appomattox County”
    “Augusta County”
    “Bath County”
    “Bland County”
    “Botetourt County”
    “Bristol City”
    “Buchanan County”
    “Buckingham County”
    “Campbell County”
    “Charlotte County”
    “Chesterfield County”
    “Colonial Heights City”
    “Cumberland County”
    “Dickenson County”
    “Fairfax County”
    “Fluvanna County”
    “Franklin County”
    “Galax City”
    “Goochland County”
    “Greensville County”
    “Halifax County”
    “Hanover County”
    “Henry County”
    “King George County”
    “Lee County”
    “Lexington City”
    “Loudoun County”
    “Manassas Park City”
    “Mecklenburg County”
    “Northumberland County”
    “Norton City”
    “Nottoway County”
    “Patrick County”
    “Poquoson City”
    “Portsmouth City”
    “Powhatan County”
    “Prince William County”
    “Pulaski County”
    “Radford City”
    “Richmond County”
    “Roanoke County”
    “Rockingham County”
    “Russell County”
    “Salem City”
    “Scott County”
    “Staunton City”
    “Virginia Beach City”
    “West Point”
    “Wise County”

    while a similar list exists for schools that did not make it – most of them missed fairly narrowly…

    and thus characterizing these schools as needing to do a better job serving kids.. is not accurate.

    My problem with the subject is that only about 1/3 of kids achieve at the NAEP proficiency level and another 1/3 in the middle and a lower 1/3 that we have for years and years “left behind” because we chose to prioritize money for the more gifted of the kids to give them more creative and richer options.

    I’m all for the more in-dept curricula for the students that excel but not at the expense of the kids (with perfectly good IQs) that will no graduate without the proper resources and services.

    NCLB is performance-based and if nothing else is instilling a level of accountability that is needed.

    and yes.. we are starting to see just how messed up some of our urban school systems are…

    .. this because of NCLB – which I think even the choice advocates are taking for granted because prior to NCLB – this information was virtually hidden…

    .. so the choice folks, more than any other group – should be about standards and assessment… to demonstrate that what choice is about –

  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    If the School Choice folks get on board with standardized achievement assessments – like NAEP or SOLs or similar – they'll get my support.

    There is a group called "Just for Kids", Formal Name = "National Center for Educational Achievement" and among it's supporters are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

    I'd like to see the School Choice folks get on board with other groups that show support for all kids to achieve….. to make clear what their agenda is…. really about.

  10. Larry,

    First, shouldn’t we focus on students, not just schools? One of our key goals at School Choice Virginia is for EVERY student to succeed- regardless of where they are educated.

    Yes, you can point out the number of schools making AYP in Virginia- but even at the “best” schools, some children are falling behind. Sometimes what they need is simply a different educational environment that is better suited to their needs.

    Secondly,as Del. Saxman has pointed out, Virginia’s private schools do have accountability standards. Additionally, if you read Del. Saxman’s school choice legislation from 2008 (HB 1164) it clearly states that non-public schools who accept the scholarships provided must “comply with nonpublic school accreditation requirements as set forth in § 22.1-19 and administered by the Virginia Council for Private Education, or maintain an assessment system that annually measures scholarship students’ progress in reading and math using a national norm-referenced achievement test, including, but not limited to, the Stanford Achievement Test, California Achievement Test, and Iowa Test of Basic Skills.”

    Finally, as I pointed out before- study after study of school choice programs in action has shown that when choice is introduced, ALL schools improve. So students see the benefits of choice whether or not they actually leave their current public school. The public schools affected by choice have actually shown improvement- so it isn’t just students who leave who benefit.

  11. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Government-administered education is just like government-administered healthcare and government-administered anything else: It’s bureaucratic, resistant to change and captive to special interests.

    The United States desperately needs to do the educational “industry” what it does best: apply creativity, innovation and creativity… applying new technologies, embracing new pedagogical paradigms, experimenting with new business and delivery models. Government-administered education simply won’t let that happen.

    As I see it, government has two critical roles: (1) ensuring that every citizen of the United States has access to an education, and (2) setting minimum educational standards. There is no compelling reason based upon the public interest that government itself must deliver the educational services.

    I can envision a system in which government provides vouchers to the parents of every child: adjusted for regional cost of living differences, special needs, and other considerations as necessary. That voucher is good for any public school in the municipality in which the family resides — or for any certified private school, or any certified home-school program. If a family has the means to supplement the voucher with scholarships or their own personal income, then they can.

    Public schools would have to compete for patronage. If they fail, they go out of business. If they create a culture of productivity and innovation, they will succeed.

    Same goes for private schools. They, too, need to innovate or die. We need to take drastic measures to transform our 19th-century paradigm for education into a 21st century paradigm.

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