by James C. Sherlock

Discussing failing schools in Virginia, people tend to speak in generalities. When an example is needed, the City of Richmond Public Schools is chosen — an uncontested layup.

But failed schools are not a problem just in Richmond. And bad public schools in Richmond are not limited to RPS. They are a problem to which VDOE has paid lip service, hamstrung by Virginia law and constitution when trying to fulfill federal mandates with federal money.

I will be very specific about schools and school divisions and the potential to help those children with professionally-run charter schools. Currently not a single one of the six or so charter schools in Virginia is managed by a successful charter management organization (CMO).

The most useful public list that we have at the moment for this discussion is the 2020-21 VDOE list of “Schools Identified for Support and Improvement under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).”

I will use that list to offer specificity to a Governor who wants to help.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the main law for K–12 public education in the United States. Under ESSA, each state plan must describe:

  • Academic standards
  • Annual testing
  • School accountability
  • Goals for academic achievement
  • Plans for supporting and improving struggling schools
  • State and local report cards

The 2020-21 ESSA status is based on 2018-19 state assessments because of cancellation of all student SOLs in the following two years.

That list represents just the bottom 5% of schools in Virginia based on VDOE assessments, not all of the poorly-performing schools.

These schools qualify for additional federal funding that in turn requires state oversight. You can see on the spreadsheet that I have annotated many of them. It is typical of the federal department of education to mandate programs and throw money at schools and at federal contractors without measurable improvement in outcomes. That is the case here.

The adults running some of the larger systems object politically to the fixes proven to work. Some of the smaller ones do not have the resources to do it. The state cannot under current Virginia law establish charter districts to help the kids directly.

So Virginia’s plans for supporting and improving struggling schools are illusory. They set improvement goals that are not met. “Progress” is typically signaled, if at all, by changing the terms of reference.

Because in Virginia, those plans are moot. The state has no authority to tell school divisions what to do in that regard, and the divisions know it.

Many spend the federal money with no measurable results and get more each year. That cycle benefits the adults in the school divisions. It is a death spiral for the hopes of the children and their parents.

I challenge anyone who thinks those bottom 5% of schools have gotten more successful with state and federal assistance to try to prove it with data. Remember when using this list that the students who were behind in 2018-19 are now measurably further behind everywhere.

I have offered several alternatives to the status-quo in those schools. This article will concentrate on the public charter schools option.

The urban schools and those in adjacent counties on the list are perhaps the best candidates for state-sponsored charter districts to improve the education, and thus the life prospects, for children in those schools.

The most celebrated charter management organizations (CMOs) such as Success Academy and KIPP have proven stunningly successful in helping urban poor minority students to vastly outperform their peers who attend legacy public schools.

One thing CMOs require in order to invest in an area is scale. They have to invest in infrastructure, including recruiting and training of staff as well as facilities, so scale is necessary. Scale can be achieved by geographic groupings of some of Virginia’s worst schools into charter districts managed by agencies of the state such as regional charter commissions.

This is just a demonstration. Realization of it will take a change to state law and perhaps the state constitution.

Under current Virginia law, those school divisions have veto power over charter schools. They have for a very long time proven inept at educating poor poor and minority kids and children with disabilities.

Those children and their parents and teachers need options. Any fix needs to start in elementary school. By middle school, the die is largely cast.

I have examined the list of 87 schools and created theoretical charter districts of perhaps sufficient scale to attract CMOs. The school systems on the bottom 5% list include:

  1. Richmond City: 19 of 47 schools listed among the bottom 5% in the state.
  2. Henrico: 6 of 67 schools. Shows political boundaries and school divisions are not necessarily dispositive. By geographic location, these six failing schools are contiguous with Richmond’s poverty zones. Five of 6 have Richmond addresses.
  3. Newport News: 9 of 40 schools
  4. Norfolk: 9 of 45 schools
  5. Danville: 7 of 12 schools
  6. Portsmouth: 5 of 22 schools
  7. Petersburg: 4 of 7 schools

Using the ESSA criteria, I will illustrate several potential charter districts as candidates that may be able to combine need, compactness and scale of elementary school populations to attract CMOs:

  1. Richmond, Henrico and Petersburg;
  2. Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Hampton and Suffolk;
  3. Buckingham, Caroline, Prince Edward, and Nottoway Counties;
  4. Charlottesville, Staunton, and Waynesboro;
  5. Northern Neck counties;
  6. Danville and Greensville County. When the list is expanded to the bottom 10%, this component will grow across the Virginia side of the North Carolina border;
  7. I-81 corridor.

I have not spent a lot of analysis on those picks. They do not, as I discussed in the southern Virginia example, take into account of the next 5% of the worst schools. Offering charters as options to the worst 10% of Virginia’s schools seems about right.

CMO’s can consult with the state on the right numbers and mixes of students and the limits on the distance between schools in charter districts needed to construct a viable Virginia presence. I am just speculating until potential providers run their numbers.

As non-profits, CMOs need to attract charitable as well as state funding to help pay the bills. Virginia has more than enough private wealth to help in that regard. National donors focused on charter schools like Bloomberg Philanthropies will help as well.

But we need to stop pretending that the current school divisions can or will find a magic formula on their own. Historical evidence suggests otherwise.

As I wrote, some of them are too small.

Others, while big enough, are run by adults politically and personally disinclined to change, regardless of the damage to children.

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40 responses to “Where Does Virginia Most Need Charter Schools?”

  1. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

    Here is a list of the Charter Schools in North Carolina.

    Here’s a description from the state. “Charter schools are public schools of choice that are authorized by the State Board of Education and operated by independent non-profit boards of directors. State and local tax dollars are the primary funding sources for charter schools, which have open enrollment and cannot discriminate in admissions, associate with any religion or religious group, or charge-tuition. Charter schools operate with freedom from many of the regulations that govern district schools, but charter schools are held accountable through the State assessment and accountability system.”

    Notice the difference between the two states. NC controls these schools at the state level. A lot harder for teachers unions to corrupt the state than a local school board.

    1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
      Eric the half a troll

      “associate with any religion or religious group”

      That is sure to change…

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I NOTE that many of the NC Charters are called “Academys”.


        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock


          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            geeze…. thanks….

      2. WayneS Avatar

        That is sure to change…

        Not unless Article IV, Section 16, of the Constitution of Virginia is repealed or amended.

        1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
          Eric the half a troll

          Or it is found unconstitutional by the SCOTUS which is likely (may have already happened – see Carson v. Makin)

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    What is the VDOE “plan” for improving these schools and how is their performance measured?

    Same question for Charter schools, both existing and proposed? What makes them different and better and how do we measure their performance and also hold them accountable?

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Look it up.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        The point I’m making is that from your post we know almost nothing beyond your advocacy with respect to what the VDOE plan./response is to these underperforming schools much less what a Charter approach would be, yet you advocate for the charters as “better”.

        If you’re going to advocate that Charters are better, should you compare what VDOE is proposing to what the Charters would do different/better rather than just make the unfounded and unsupported claim they will do what VDOE cannot or will not?

        If not, it seems to be mostly just a blind advocacy without any real justification other than a belief.

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          It’s that memory issue of yours, Larry.

          Go to the “Search Bacon’s Rebellion” box adjacent, enter the search term “Success Academy”, select search and read as many of my articles on that subject and the links provided until all of your questions are answered.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            Again, you fail to show what VDOE does/will do and what a Charter would do and basically claim that one charter out of how many is “better”.

            You do not demonstrate that Charters in general across the country are “better” much less compare Success method to what VDOE would do.

            It’s your basic “belief” advocacy and little more.

            You lay things out chapter and verse ad infinitum but there is a quite a bit of “fluff” and very little of real “beef”.

            Referring to your old/prior links where you do essentially the same is lame and really evading the issue IMO.

          2. CrazyJD Avatar

            So far, we know that Success Academy has wonderful results compared to the public schools. Apparently that’s not enough for you. OK, so what are your facts that refute Jim’s argument? Oh, and BTW, what’s your plan to get better results? Why can’t you bother to make a cogent argument about the plans for charter schools like Dick makes below

          3. WayneS Avatar

            Yeah, Nostradamus, why can’t you tell him what the VDOE is going to do in the future?


  3. Teddy007 Avatar

    One should include columns in the spreadsheet for percent black, percent Hispanic, and percentage free lunch. The data can be dug out of school district website or by using an aggregator such as Niche.
    And for those who want to claim that schools can try different ideas/methods to improve education, try to find the best performing school that is more than 50% black and find the worst performing school that is more than 90% white and compare those two schools.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      any thought that a category called “low-income”/”economically disadvantaged” would correlate closely with “black”?

      Also consider ESL. Some of the low-performing schools I saw in Fairfax had large numbers of ESL.

      1. Teddy007 Avatar

        The Free lunch is usually considered a proxy for low income/economically disadvantage. the ESL number if not available on niche so I do not look at it. Latino would probably have to stand in for Northern Virginia. As some have pointed out, the more interesting comparisons are where black students do the best and where white/Asian students do the worst. The problem is that where white students do the worst is probably the lowest hanging fruit for improving educational performance but where blacks do the worst is probably the highest hanging fruit for making improvements. Yet, education is about chasing the high hanging fruit while refusing to deal with the easiest fixes.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          I would suspect that each one of those schools on that list has a VDOE “improvement plan”.

          Typically the higher performing schools in the district will offset the SOLs of the low performing schools such that the overall SOLs for the district are acceptable.

          SOL Reading score for Henrico School District
          2019 is: 75.7

          But if you look at per school, it ranges from
          42 to 98:

          (Sherlocks VDOE list has 6 Henrico schools on it)

          Glen Lea Elementary 41.97
          Laburnum Elementary 45.53
          Highland Springs Elementary 46
          L. Douglas Wilder Middle 49.42
          Charles M. Johnson Elementary 52.07
          Cashell Donahoe Elementary 53.31
          Fair Oaks Elementary 53.93
          Elizabeth Holladay Elementary 54.83
          John Rolfe Middle 55.92
          Elko Middle 56.28
          Brookland Middle 56.75
          Harold Macon Ratcliffe Elementary 57.14
          Longdale Elementary 59.09
          Arthur Ashe Jr. Elementary 60
          Chamberlayne Elementary 62.37
          Dumbarton Elementary 62.37
          Montrose Elementary 62.71
          Lakeside Elementary 63.46
          Varina Elementary 64.13
          Fairfield Middle 65.02
          Jacob L. Adams Elementary 65.57
          Ridge Elementary 66.54
          George F. Baker Elementary 66.85
          Harvie Elementary 68.54
          Henry D. Ward Elementary 69.2
          Skipwith Elementary 70.72
          Quioccasin Middle School 71.85
          Pinchbeck Elementary 74.41
          Hungary Creek Middle 75.3
          R.C. Longan Elementary 76.04
          Seven Pines Elementary 76.26
          Varina High 76.32
          Ruby F. Carver Elementary 77.45
          Crestview Elementary 77.78
          Highland Springs High 79.27
          Sandston Elementary 79.76
          Hermitage High 80.7
          Maude Trevvett Elementary 80.9
          Greenwood Elementary 81.18
          Tuckahoe Middle 81.24
          Henrico High 81.6
          Pemberton Elementary 81.75
          Maybeury Elementary 81.93
          Jackson Davis Elementary 83.47
          George H. Moody Middle 83.59
          John Randolph Tucker High 85.04
          Echo Lake Elementary 86.99
          Three Chopt Elementary 87.21
          Glen Allen Elementary 87.57
          Springfield Park Elementary 88
          Pocahontas Middle 89.3
          Colonial Trail Elementary 89.88
          Douglas S. Freeman High 91.38
          Short Pump Elementary 91.7
          Short Pump Middle 91.7
          Holman Middle 91.74
          Twin Hickory Elementary 91.86
          Glen Allen High 92.04
          Gayton Elementary 92.41
          Tuckahoe Elementary 92.57
          David A. Kaechele Elementary 92.76
          Nuckols Farm Elementary 93.81
          Rivers Edge Elementary 93.92
          Shady Grove Elementary 94.44
          Mills E. Godwin High 95.27
          Deep Run High 98.32

          1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
            James C. Sherlock

            “Sherlock’s VDOE list” is the actual list of schools receiving special federal funding under ESSA.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            yes – and special programs for improvement?

            Do we know what the specific improvement plans are and whether or not they “work” or not BEFORE we decide an equally-un-defined Charter approach is determined to be better? Do we have any such method for determining how effective the Charters would be compared to the VDOE approach?

            Once more – I am NOT opposed to competitors to public schools that are failing but the competitors should have to play by the same rules which is to teach the same failing school demographics AND have similar transparency with regard to performance and accountability for their success or failure.

            If, after doing that, the Charters actually do demonstrate they are successful then next steps.

            but don’t get cart before the horse.

    2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Easily done. Just not easily written about in a column of this length.

  4. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I commend you for your passion and persistence in advocating for public charter schools, especially for those kids in poorer areas.

    Your analysis here highlights the logistical problems. A successful CMO needs scale, not just a single charter school here and there. To achieve this scale, two systemic problems need to be addressed–the constitutional standing of local school districts and the breaching of local jurisdictional boundaries.

    Establishing the legal framework for a viable charter school system or network in Virginia can be done, but it will not be easy. If Youngkin is truly interested in going beyond campaign slogans and actually establishing the framework for charter schools (and I have my doubts that he is), his administration needs to be putting together a relatively small, diverse group that will study the legal issues and develop a draft proposal that will address the objections of opponents in the GA, as well as establish a campaign to educate the GA particularly and the public generally. I have yet to see any evidence of any movement along these lines. If a constitutional amendment is going to be needed, then the first of the two required GA approvals for a referendum needs to occur in the 2023 Session. Time’s a wasting.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Agree and go further and say that I’m not alone in wanting more/enough assurances that Charters are actually targeted to the kids in these schools that Sherlock has highlighted as opposed to using these schools as justification to do Charters for any/all.

      I’d like to see these schools SPECIFIC to the public schools that are failing.

      And SECOND, that they be held fully accountable just like public schools are and if they too “fail” then start to understand that kids of low-income, less-educated parents are the issue – for both public and Charters.

      Sherlock keeps citing Success Academies – but Success also has a “failure” rate and some kids wash out – and those kids that do – go back to the public schools, so Charter Schools are not necessarily the perfect gold-standard answer to the problem.

      But I would sign on to targeted demographics and full accountability even if some kids fail and are sent back to the public schools.

      What I’d NOT sign on to is a premise that just because it’s a “Charter” that it will be better than the public schools and no accountability is needed.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        I don’t think anyone has advocated that charter schools not be held accountable. For example, they would be subject to the SOLs.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Same schools, different management. I’m down with anything except religious schools. And yes, I know, the law expressly forbids the most devious people known from receiving tax dollars.

        2. LarrytheG Avatar

          They don’t advocate against it but they also don’t advocate FOR it.

          My other concern is the idea that because it is a Charter, it will be better with little or no explanation as to why or how – just believe.

          This is especially an issue with the kids in the schools that Sherlock has listed.

          I’m GLAD he explained that it’s NOT all schools in a given district – just SOME schools in Henrico – which, in general , in the same district, with the same leadership also has good schools.

          These schools are often and mostly dealing with kids that are classified as “economically disadvantaged” – parents with lower income and lower levels of education attainment.

          I AGREE that the public schools have largely failed to successfully educate these kids – no argument from me on that.

          But I’m not at all convinced of the “magic” of Charters for teaching these kids either.

          And what I fear is that these kids will be used as the PREMISE for opening up Charters but then the Charters will become nothing more that publicly-funded academies for well-to-kids and the economically disadvantaged will not have guaranteed or prioritized access – which destroys the entire premise of standing them up in the first place.

          Do I trust that won’t happen?

          No I don’t.

          I want to see things on paper – LIKE the demographic targeting AND the SOLs.

    2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      I absolutely agree.

    3. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      My frustration, Dick, is that this isn’t a Democratic passion.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        I think it is because the term “charter school” invokes connotations of exclusivity. Part of the education of the GA that is needed is that charter schools are public, that they can be especially beneficial to students from economically depressed areas, and that the teachers will be public employees. However, now that teachers can be represented in collective bargaining, there will be a need to accommodate that possibility and reality with how the CMOs operate.

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          The public charter school teachers in the type of system that I describe work for the Charter Management Organizations under CMO rules. They are not public employees. They can unionize under the same rules as working for any other company.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            We have advocacy for CMOs here with very little offered to show who they actually are, what they do, how they work… ergo.. why we would replicate in Va.

            At the same time we highlight the under-performing schools that VDOE has identified – very little info is provided to show VDOEs plan for improvement, whether or not it as been effective, etc.

            It’s almost as if these schools are identified as failing schools that will not be improved under VDOE and they would be improved under some undefined CMO.

            I think there are more than 7000 charter schools in the US.

            Is there no before/after data when those schools started to operate and took over failing public schools?

            If we’re going to have advocacy for Charters to improve the failing schools VDOE has identified, shouldn’t it be more than mostly a blind belief?

            where is the data that shows CMOs actually target economically disadvantaged kids in failing schools AND are effective and actually do succeed where public schools do not?

            Out of 7000 charter schools, the only one we can point to is Success Academies?

            There are also questions about the attrition rate of Success where instead of being held accountable for kids failing, those kids are take out of Success and sent back to public schools.

            That’s not exactly the same type of accountability that we hold public schools to.

            In other words, Success does not succeed with every child which is the standard we hold public schools to.

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Oops, I meant, “Go southwest, young man.”

    Nevertheless, as a percentage of the populations, Virginia is a winner by more than 12%. Using Va’s population percentage in 1920 as a constant, one would expect our portion of the 2020 population to be 7,219,000. It actually comes in at 8,631,000.

    Yea Virginia!

  6. Ken Lipstock Avatar
    Ken Lipstock

    Question 1 : politically speaking how would you rate the relative difficulty of success for changing school board makeup (grassroots effort to vote in pro charters/school choice board members) vs convincing the state legislators to vote in favor of State hegemony over the fate of charters/school boards and not local school boards?
    2) What about ESA`s (limited or universal) ala W Va and especially now in Arizona compared to charters. James S, I had read your posts about the Success Academy and it was very impressive. Kipp has had much success (even now after tearing down the work hard/be nice logo by the wokesters?) In the end, as per T Sowell, there doesn`t seem to be any one formula for success….whatever is successful is successful, and given free choice many parents will take their kids to that. The more choice the better. This of course should not be a partisan issue. Take your kid wherever the heck you choose. Socialist run systems like our public education in the U.S. is….well….socialist. Has that worked out well?

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Do you consider the 30-some other OECD countries public school systems “socialist failures” also?

      re: ” Take your kid wherever the heck you choose”

      with your money, not my taxes… thank you

      I no more want you to spend my taxes how you please for your kids education than I would for any other purpose.

      That’s the entire reason why public schools are held accountable – and really the only reason why you have performance data to start with.

      1. Ken Lipstock Avatar
        Ken Lipstock

        I would say that the glacial like grinding effects of competition will have the cream rise to the top. IMO much better to spend your tax dollars for some not failing public school in some failing run down community with failing trapped kids forced to go to their failing school. Certainly we have learned that throwing money to failing schools has not worked (do you know about that court ordered experiment in Kansas where they gave umpteen $$$`s to the failing schools and had zero effect after over a decade so the judge called it all off? and over and over again everywhere the fallacy of $$ thrown at it is bogus ) So I literally want your tax dollars and mine to be put in the hands of the mother who wants to send her kids to that place down the block (let`s say Anna Julia Cooper school….certainly not to scale as has been discussed) so our tax dollars can educate our up and coming new leaders of the world in a more efficient manner. And while we`re at it, in deference to liberty let the wealthy mom get the same check to send her kid wherever the heck she wants. Studies have shown the more charters around a public school the better the public school does.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          what percent of public schools “fail”?

          How do you KNOW they “fail”

          You KNOW because a requirement of using tax dollars is provide performance data.

          Are Charter schools held accountable for kids that “fail” like public schools are?

          So you’d give tax dollars to “moms” to spend as they please without the school having to abide by the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools do?

          And why and how do public schools “work” in 30 other OECD countries and not in this country?

          I’m all for you spending your dollars the way you please but not mine no matter how high-sounding your claims.

          Educating “new leaders” is a nice thought but the PURPOSE of public schools is PRIMARILY to produce an educated workforce that is employable , can take care of their own and family needs and not need other folks tax dollars for entitlements.

          No matter how many good “leaders” you have , if our society is a welfare society we lose.

          that’s supposed to be a “conservative” idea…

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    One thing I have not heard here is a realization that, right now, there are a number of Conservative-majority school boards that presumably would be a place for Charter advocates to start.

    One might think those conservative boards would be asking their representatives to sponsor legislation to enable charters in their district.

    Why is not a local conservative-majority board not a good path?

    1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
      Kathleen Smith

      The divisions that most need school choice via charter schools will not advocate for charter schools. If they did advocate for charter’s, they should surely not govern the charter school. Sewage in, sewage out. Wasted money. Do it right from the start, establish a charter management organization with a proven record of success to manage and govern the schools. Water in, koolaide out.

    2. Kathleen Smith Avatar
      Kathleen Smith

      Think of this: Most schools can operate in a similar manner as others with reasonable expectations (SOLS) and produce reasonable outcomes (SOL pass rates). There are only a few schools that cannot. You can’t fit a round peg in a square hole. Something different is needed by way of inputs to make the outcomes similar to the majority. These schools require a different governing or leadership model. Research proves that Governance and Leadership matter most. We keeping funding inputs for schools that don’t change the thing that matters most- how the are governed and led.

  8. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    You can put as much sugar as you would like into Koolaide, but if it is made with sewage water, it will still be sewage water. First charters need oversight outside the local board and second, charters need to be able to show a history of success. Lab schools aren’t going to cut it.

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