Monday, February 1, 2016

Charter schools in Virginia whether we want them or not

Charter schools may soon be coming to Virginia communities whether those communities want them or not. This is not about whether or not to have charter schools or whether or not charter schools work. This is about power and democracy.

In Virginia, what's known as the "charter school bill," HB 3 in the Virginia House of Delegates and SB 588 in the Virginia Senate, establishes a resolution (HJ 1 and SJ R6) that will trigger a referendum on a constitutional amendment giving the Virginia State Board of Education ( a 9-member body appointed by the Governor) the power to go over the heads of local school boards and establish charter schools in local communities.  This resolution will likely be heard in the Virginia House of Delegates today (Monday, February 1st, 2016) or tomorrow, so you must contact your Delegate ASAP.

This resolution and accompanying legislation is before the General Assembly for the second year in a row. (I wrote about this last year here and before that I wrote about the concept, when it was the Opportunity Educational Institution, here.) Last year, it passed both chambers and, hence, if it passes this year—and as of this writing the House Privileges and Election Committee has sent it on to the House floor on a 10-9 vote—it will go onto the ballot this November. (Or maybe not this November if the Virginia GOP doesn't think it will pass then, but I digress.) 

“Work” is not the right way of looking at this, in any case. Like any model, some charter schools are successful and some aren’t. Some charter schools are true institutions of education, created by parents and educators, while some are real estate scams, developed by hucksters and charlatans. But given that all students are not served as they should be in public schools, I agree that conversations about the merits and disadvantages of charter schools are worth having.

But it is a conversation worth having among parents, citizens, educators, and educational leaders in the communities where charter schools are potentially to be located. Setting up schools in local communities is not a state matter. While many of its members are knowledgeable and passionate about K-12 education in Virginia and the Virginia State Board of Education may do a good job with the work they are tasked with, this is not their job.

Virginia currently has a rigorous, democratic process to establish charter schools, a process with built-in oversight, checks and balances, and accountability. Charter school proposals go before the locally, democratically elected (and in some cases, locally appointed) school boards where the charter schools are to be established. Charter schools in Virginia are overseen by these school boards and the schools are hence accountable to the public like all other public schools. Some local communities in Virginia have decided to set up charter schools. Groups in other communities have tried to set up charter schools but have not made a strong enough case to other members of their communities or to their school boards.

A school board failing to act on a matter or acting in a way that we citizens don’t agree with is not sufficient reason to put the Commonwealth through the referendum process, to amend the constitution, or to do so in a way that will disenfranchise citizens of local communities. Shall we threaten to amend the Constitution of Virginia every time our school boards do something we don’t agree with? Is that reasonable? Because I have got, like, ten amendments (don't tell my school board I said that). No, that’s not reasonable and it trivializes the amendment process.

I don’t always agree with my school board, but it is my school board, answerable to me and the members of the public it serves. Let's keep it that way. Please contact your state Senator and Delegate and tell them to VOTE NO on HB3/SB588.