Charting a New Course

Virginia’s educational landscape may finally grow to include charter schools.

Virginia’s educational landscape may finally grow to include charter schools.

By Dena Levitz

Bobbi Snow’s objective was simple. Use the arts to get through to adolescents who have struggled to find their academic footing within Charlottesville’s public schools. Their families, instead of fighting against the education powers that be, would form a partnership with them, invested in seeing the new school thrive.

The Current Crop of Charter schools

To bring the vision to life, Snow joined forces with former colleague Sandy Richardson. After spending two years crafting an application for a public charter school, the women grew frustrated. Charlottesville officials were “lukewarm at best” about the idea, Richardson says. So they withdrew their application. Back to the drawing board, only this time in surrounding Albemarle County.

Two more years passed before the proposal cleared all of the hurdles there. Once the charter was signed, there were facility issues to contend with, staffing and the establishment of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit status so that the co-founders could fundraise to take care of expenses beyond start-up grant dollars.

Finally, in fall 2008, Community Public Charter School opened its doors to two dozen sixth- and seventh-graders anxious for a new way of learning algebraic equations and periodic tables.

When it did, it became only the fourth public charter school in Virginia’s history.

Even though the Commonwealth has allowed charter schools for more than a decade, the pace of growth has been almost nonexistent. Unlike in the nearby District of Columbia where charters educate close to a third of the city’s children, Virginia has barely made a blip on the charter map, which includes 2 million families across the nation.

The series of hoops that even well-intentioned schools like Community Charter have to jump through to get to approval are a major sticking point, according to advocates. So heavy hitters in the charter operating realm stay away from Virginia and take their business elsewhere, resulting in a continued lack of local progress.

New Gov. Bob McDonnell made the push for charter schools a cornerstone of his education platform during a blistering win over Democratic contender Creigh Deeds in November. And the country’s highest-ranking politician, President Barack Obama, has unflinchingly supported charters. Last summer, Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, announced that states would only have access to $4.3 billion in Race to the Top funds for education innovation if they met specific criteria, including promoting the proliferation of charter schools.

“The momentum is moving in the right direction,” says Don Soifer, executive director of the Arlington-based Lexington Institute, a leading think tank that endorses charters. “People are really getting it. The number of calls we’re getting about charter schools is increasing, and so are the number and quality of applications to open them.”

McDonnell spokesperson Tucker Martin pledges that within McDonnell’s four-year term there will be significant action on the charter school front, and that time may be now. At the time of publication, the Virginia House and Senate Education Committees approved a bill expanding the state’s role in approving charter school applications—opening the door to the possibility for Virginia to secure $350 million in funding from the federal government’s new education program.

Even with announcements at the end of 2009 that Virginia will battle through a $3.5 billion budget shortfall over the next two years, Martin says school reform plans won’t be hindered. “If anything, it strengthens the case for charter schools,” he says. “We see education and charter schools as a critical component of growing Virginia’s economy.”

Seeds of the Movement
The concept of charter schools took shape 20 years ago when reformers searched for a public education option with less bureaucracy and more autonomy to cater to students not in the middle of the educational pack.

Like traditional public schools, charter campuses cost nothing for neighborhood youths to attend and are paid for by public money. The big difference, then, is who is running the schools. Charters, unlike public school systems, are decentralized and can be run by any agency granted permission to operate, from established foundations to start-up companies with a passion for schooling. That’s why their program concentrations and formats can be more experimental, running year-round, focusing on, say, African culture or catering to middle schoolers with attention deficit disorder, even requiring parents to sign agreements to participate in a set amount of school events each term.

And if the curriculum or management tactics don’t work, administrators can change course almost immediately—or risk being shut down.

Often, charters have blossomed in areas with concentrations of failing schools, a last resort when existing public schools can’t produce. For instance, New Orleans, which practically had to build up its educational infrastructure from scratch after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, has the highest percentage of youngsters enrolled in charters in the nation.

In Richardson’s eyes, the beauty is that charter schools function like private academies, without the hefty price tag and restrictive admissions criteria.

“They tend to be small and continuously hold up a mirror to themselves to carry out their mission,” she says. “The teachers internalize that mission; it is never just a job. They create the school; it is their vision along with the board, the parents, the families and the students who give the school life.”

Opponents, though, argue that instead of reinventing the wheel—especially in areas with high-achieving public school systems like Northern Virginia—it makes more sense to just invest additional money in the public school system.

“I don’t believe that there are any circumstances where charters provide a better option than if the locality and the state were to step up to their full obligation to fully fund the schools,” says Kitty Boitnott, president of the anti-charter Virginia Education Association (VEA).

Parent Kay Arndorfer, who is PTA president of Charles Barrett Elementary School in Alexandria, agrees that doing better for all students is the stronger approach.

“We’re a pretty small district, and there’s a lot of room for improvement, but charter schools would siphon off attention, support and resources to our existing schools,” she says. “Morton Sherman, our superintendent, has tried to get back to basics and making sure every child has their needs met and is challenged. That’s plenty to do.”

Restrictions in the Commonwealth
Virginia’s situation is unique because of the extremely restrictive law its legislators passed in 1998, allowing for charter schools to exist in the first place—with only local school boards reviewing charter school applications and authorizing only those they see fit to open. Applicants who are rejected have no recourse, since an appeals process is not carved out in the law.

In other, more charter-friendly states, there are multiple authorizers—universities, state boards, even specially created bodies with expertise in charter school creation.

The new bill before the state House and Senate will give the Board of Education an advising role on charter school applications prior to going before the local school boards.

But Soifer says still there’s a built-in conflict of interest.

“Local school boards see a new charter school as a threat to the public school system, so there’s intrinsically a confrontational relationship. The school board has the tendency to not see the educational benefits, only that money’s being taken away from their existing schools,” he says.

Martin explains it similarly, emphasizing that McDonnell believes charter schools have for too long been “allowed but not encouraged or well understood.”

“It’s as if we’ve allowed parking spaces but didn’t allow anyone to park cars in them,” Martin says. “Now it’s a matter of linking intent with the changes needed to make that intent happen.”

The governor put together a transition group on education policy to study the proper sequence, which is now being decided upon with the current charter school bill. And as lawmakers duke out the necessary adjustments, Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William) points out that charter schools are already legally allowed in Virginia, and that it’s just the reviewing and approval process that is currently being discussed.

In the meantime, Martin says, the goal is to educate local school boards on quality charter schools by adding resources at the state level to help school boards navigate the charter school application process.

“The great thing about this election is that we haven’t had a legislator come on as governor since 1997,” says Del. Chris Saxman, who is head of the coalition School Choice Virginia. “That’s a huge difference when someone already has those relationships and understands and respects the lawmaking process.”

Funneling Money Away?
If the law or climate does change, resulting in a surge in charter schools, where does that leave the current public education system?

Better off, if you ask Saxman.

“Most people see it as an attack on public schools. But charter schools are not. It’s trying to make them more vibrant, more innovative,” he says. “We have that with our higher education system in Virginia. We’re just playing catch-up in the earlier grades.”

The governor’s office also stresses not having charter schools for the sake of having charter schools. So if there’s inadequate support for opening up new charter campuses in pockets of the state, such as the D.C. suburbs, they don’t have to suddenly create charter campuses.

Still, the big question mark is funds.

Boitnott, of the VEA, contends that adding charter schools into the mix “stretches already inadequate resources even further.”

“Instead of lifting all students and providing everyone equitable opportunities, some select students in the charters would be given greater advantages while students in the regular, more traditional programs would suffer as the result of resources being drained,” she says.

It’s a concern shared by the Virginia PTA. President Debra Abadie says the only way her organization would support the addition of more charter schools is if the public funds are closely guarded.

“Yes, charter schools would get public funding for the students who attend. However, no additional loss of funding for the ‘regular’ schools should occur,” she says. “Ensuring continued full funding of non-charter schools would need to be watched. Without question a lowering of services provided at regular schools could be a result if additional funding is diverted to a charter school.”

charter schools vs. public schools

The response by charter supporters is that money is not taken away by giving it to charter schools. Rather, it’s reallocated in the system to follow the child that’s being educated, at which point the public school has one less student to worry about.

Abadie says she can see the argument that in places like Fairfax and Arlington, which possess high-caliber public schools, charters simply aren’t needed.

Elsewhere in the state, though, it’s a different story.

Saxman calls it a “moral issue.”

“We characterize ourselves as a commonwealth. We’re supposed to be all in this together. Just because your schools are very good—and Northern Virginia has some of the best in the country—doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to make sure those kids in Norfolk and Richmond get a chance,” he says. “The positive thing is in neighborhoods where you put charter schools that are doing well. You see a renaissance of neighborhoods, property values increase, the tax revenue increases. We need to be supporting that.”

(April 2010)