- The Washington Times - Monday, February 15, 2016

A two-year effort to expand charter schools in Virginia was dealt a blow Monday, when the Senate voted 21-19 to reject a measure that would have made it easier to establish alternative schools.

Republican Sens. A. Benton Chafin Jr. of Bland County and Emmett Hanger of Rockingham County joined the Democrats to kill a November ballot initiative for a constitutional amendment authorizing the Virginia Board of Education to approve charter schools.

Currently, local school boards have the power to establish charters in their districts but have been reluctant to do so: There are only nine charter schools in the state.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, Harrisonburg Republican, has pushed for charter schools for two years, calling them a “lifeline” for students who live in areas with lower-quality schools.

“It is fundamentally wrong and indefensible for us to provide a world-class education in some jurisdictions around Virginia and then provide others a Third World education and do nothing about it,” he said on the Senate floor. “My God, we have kids we are ruining.”

Opponents said the bill would have stripped power from school boards, and the state should not try to take resources from traditional schools.

“Simply running roughshod over local school wards is not the way to do it,” said Sen. Richard Saslaw, Fairfax County Democrat.

Though part of the public school system, charters are less regulated than traditional schools and allow more leeway in teaching methods. School officials across the state had opposed the bill, noting that money allocated for traditional schools is often funneled to charters.

The House already has passed a bill to put the constitutional amendment in front of voters in November, as well as other measures that support charter schools.

If bill sponsors are able to garner enough support in the Senate, it is possible the measure could survive. If not, charter advocates will find themselves at the constitutional amendment starting line again.

In order to amend the state constitution, both chambers of the legislature need to approve a voter referendum in two years separated by a House of Delegates election. The next House election is in 2017, making 2018 the next possible year for an amendment to pass.

“Republicans killed charter schools in Virginia,” Mr. Obenshain tweeted after the vote.

In preparation for Tuesday’s crossover, the last day either chamber can pass its bills, the House and Senate held a marathon floor session Monday.

The Senate approved:

Continuing two coal tax credits that proponents say will help save coal-related jobs. Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed similar legislation last year, saying it had not helped to save jobs and harmed the environment. The bill passed by a veto-proof majority.

A ballot initiative for a right-to-work constitutional amendment that would prevent unions from forcing non-members to join and non-union workers from working when the union is on strike. It passed along party lines, 21-19. If approved by the House, it will appear on the November ballot.

A bill to reverse Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s decision not to accept concealed carry weapons permits from 25 other states, part of a deal between Republicans and Mr. McAuliffe.

The House approved:

A bill to require any high school family life education curriculum offered by schools to teach students how to prevent dating violence, domestic abuse and sexual harassment.

A bill to allow school security officers who are retired law enforcement officers to carry guns. Proponents say this will help prevent mass shootings on campuses; opponents say that adding more guns to the mix mishandles the problem.

• Anjali Shastry can be reached at ashastry@washingtontimes.com.

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