Does the Virginia gubernatorial victory handed Republican Robert F. McDonnell mean that voters support his education agenda? Voters and school-choice advocates won't know the answer until after the General Assembly convenes in January and the governor-elect is sworn in. In the interim, education, religious and business advocates are scheduled today to release the results of a voter survey on school choice and education reform that was conducted before the Nov. 3 elections.
During the race for governor, education reform was a constant with Mr. McDonnell, a proponent of charter schools who said Virginia needs a vibrant system with additional educational opportunities.
As a candidate, he said the state should be in "the vanguard of the charter school movement."
"I agree with President Obama: we need more charter schools in America," the then-candidate says on bobmcdonnell.com. "That need is particularly pressing in Virginia, where we currently only have four charter schools, one of the lowest numbers in the country. As Governor, I will propose the expansion of public charter schools in the Commonwealth. Nationally, public charter schools were a bipartisan creation, designed nearly two decades ago to empower teachers, parents and communities to come together and create a new form of public school that was free from restrictive regulations and systems. Public charter schools offer competitive educational opportunities for all families, not just those who can afford them. I believe that parents should have more control over their child's education, creating competition between schools resulting in higher quality, innovative programs to educate our children."
Mr. McDonnell is right.
Virginia is out of sync with its national counterparts when it comes to public charter schools.
Although Virginia fares better than one of its next-door neighbors - West Virginia has no charters - the commonwealth has just three charter schools, a fourth scheduled to open next school year and none in Northern Virginia. That runs counter to a new report that says the demand for charter schools remains strongest in urban areas and shows no signs of abating.
Virginia's slow growth in the charter movement could lead to a partisan skirmish in Richmond or, as former Fairfax County School Board member Chris Braunlich put it, Mr. McDonnell's plank may have been "stopped at the shores of the Potomac River."
"In a post-election newspaper interview, Virginia Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw declared his opposition to expanding the charter school law on the grounds that they weren't needed in suburban areas - thus throwing under the bus children in urban schools where up to 40 percent of the students do not graduate from high school on time," Mr. Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, writes in the institute's Jefferson Journal.
Parents say they choose public charter schools for many reasons; chief among them are autonomy from bureaucracy, academic variety, and safety and security.
The considerable growth of charters in recent years is proof of parental satisfaction and demand, advocates say. They point to several facts that did not exist less than two decades ago: Public charters have become an effective alternative to traditional schools; there are 4,578 charter schools in 41 states and the District of Columbia with total enrollment of roughly 1.4 million students; the market share for charters is greatest in cities such as New Orleans, Detroit, Washington, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and New York.
"The explosive growth of public charter schools in D.C. is a consequence of their freedom to innovate and accountability for improved student performance," said Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. "Middle and high school students in schools where a majority of children are economically disadvantaged are nearly twice as likely to be proficient in reading and math in D.C. charters as their peers in the regular public schools."
Yet while Washington's charters are free to innovate, Virginia has tethered its charter school law to local school board control, which can stifle reform.
Indeed, reform is a core aspect of the Obama administration's $4.35 billion Race to the Top education initiative, which calls for "expanding support for high-performing public charter schools." Some states are vigorously competing for those federal dollars. Connecticut, Ohio, Rhode Island and Tennessee, for example, took a two-fisted approach by beating back proposed cuts to charter school funding and raising their caps on charters.
Yet, while experts and advocates are encouraged as charters grow in size and number in urban areas, some are cautious. They say quality is as important as quantity when it comes to charter schools, which are publicly funded and semiautonomous. Oftentimes, they say, local school boards, the very entities set up to authorize charter schools - as is Virginia's case - meddle by getting involved in the day-to-day management of charters.
"The most successful charter schools ... have important common qualities," Mr. Braunlich says. "Among them are high expectations, extra time for students, effective (and multiple) assessment tests and a strong faculty and team spirit.
"But these successful qualities flourish best in places where there is a strong balance between offering schools a high level of school autonomy and freedom and demanding strong accountability systems for student performance. ... Forcing restrictions on charter schools that limit the level of innovation and flexibility those schools can use tend* to result in failure. And focusing on inputs rather than student outcomes puts the emphasis on the wrong end of student learning.
"Learning how quality public charter schools operate - and how effective charter authorizers genuinely supervise, rather than manage, those schools - is an important step in revamping Virginia's charter school law and offering new opportunities for educationally at-risk students."