Where Does Virginia Most Need Charter Schools?

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.