- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 11, 2010

RICHMOND — The education package that new Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell outlined Wednesday borrows heavily from Democratic President Obama’s bid to significantly expand charter schools.

Mr. McDonnell’s proposals would give the state more say in helping win approval from local school boards for applicants who want to open charter schools — publicly funded schools freed from most state regulations so they can operate more like private schools.

The conservative governor who took office last month also conspicuously included Democrats in a news conference to unveil his plan. Among them was former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected black governor and a charter-schools advocate.

Mr. McDonnell said the schools offer a way to improve student performance through greater accountability and cut public costs for schools as Virginia grapples with a $4 billion shortfall in its budget for the next two years.

“Charter schools aren’t a silver bullet, but they are an important option for parents and for children,” Mr. McDonnell said.

In the 12 years since Virginia approved charter schools, Mr. McDonnell noted, only four have won approval from local school boards and three are in operation. Virginia ranks last nationally in charter-school development, the governor said.

Mr. McDonnell’s plan changes the process for applying for charter schools, requiring applicants who wish to start one to first submit proposals to the State Board of Education, not a local school board. The proposal would be screened and sent by the state to local officials with a “pre-certification recommendation.” It allows applicants who have been rejected by local school boards to appeal to the state board.

Robley S. Jones, chief lobbyist for the 60,000-member state teachers organization, the Virginia Education Association, said the state pre-certification and appeals provisions circumvent the Virginia Constitution’s guarantee that only local school boards approve new schools.

Mr. McDonnell disputed the suggestion that his plan would require a constitutional change.

“We’ve got several other examples already in the law, like the Governor’s School for the Deaf and Blind, a creation of the General Assembly that’s not created by a local school board,” Mr. McDonnell said.

He said an aggressive effort to develop charter schools could entitle Virginia to $350 million in federal money under Mr. Obama’s year-old federal “Race to the Top” initiative. Mr. Obama is a charter-schools advocate, and throughout his campaign for governor last year, Mr. McDonnell praised the president’s support for charter schools. He said so again Wednesday, calling in Mr. Wilder to help him align the Virginia program’s aims with those of Mr. Obama’s $4 billion national program.

Mr. Wilder, an Obama backer in the 2008 election, said charter schools are a good way to improve student outcomes, particularly in inner-city settings beset by low test scores and high dropout rates.

“I’ve come to recognize what some of these charter schools can do,” said Mr. Wilder, who took office 20 years ago. “I happen to know that the Obama administration is not just interested in any charter school but only those that are at the highest level of achievement.”

Delegate Rosalyn R. Dance, a Democrat, will be a House co-sponsor of Mr. McDonnell’s charter-schools bill. She represents Petersburg, a city whose schools have been ranked among the worst in Virginia.

“Charters are public schools subject to the same standards as public schools but will be able to innovate,” Ms. Dance said. “And they are open to all students — that was important to me — including special education students and students classified as at risk. For me that was like a bell went off.”

Another facet of Mr. McDonnell’s plan calls for developing “virtual schools,” which offer distance learning with Virginia-certified teachers through online technology to target students who have trouble in traditional classrooms.

It also enables Virginia universities to pair with local public education systems to develop “laboratory schools” that would offer greater autonomy and flexibility to experiment, plus resources colleges can provide that traditional schools lack.

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