Published Online: February 26, 2010

Va. Legislators Still Weighing Charter-School Bill

A Senate committee is getting more time to consider legislation that would expand the state's role in the charter-school approval process and would potentially allow more of such schools to open in Virginia.

The Senate Education and Health Committee was to vote Thursday on the measure, one of Gov. Bob McDonnell's priorities during his campaign. The bill underwent last-minute changes to make it more palatable to some opponents, so the 15-member committee allowed discussion of the issue and postponed action until next week, said bill sponsor Sen. Stephen Newman.

One of Gov. Bob McDonnell's top priorities has been to enhance the ability of groups and companies to open charter schools, which receive public funding and must meet accountability benchmarks but can operate under different rules. There are three charter schools in Virginia; another is set to open this summer.

Representatives of education groups met with McDonnell administration officials and Newman several times to reshape the bill, which they said was unconstitutional because it took away local divisions' decision-making power by allowing the state Board of Education the final say on charter school applications. The compromise bill gives state education officials a role in advising prospective providers on their applications, but local boards would retain approval authority.

Newman, R-Lynchburg, also noted that while the legislation may not be perfect, demonstrating a focus on charter schools could make Virginia a more attractive recipient of about $350 million in federal Race to the Top funding.

"If we don't act, we will not qualify for federal money," he said. "If we do, we may."

The Virginia School Boards Association and the Virginia Education Association were among groups who said Thursday they approve the revised legislation now that it retains control at the local level. Other charter school supporters lined up to weigh in on the issue, saying that such schools would still be public schools and would benefit children by offering another educational choice.

State Education Secretary Gerard Robinson, who was hired by McDonnell largely in recognition of his charter school advocacy, said that such schools aren't competition for but a continuation of the public school structure.

Curtiss Stancil, a regional vice president for development with EdisonLearning, a corporate provider of charter school management programs, told the panel that charter schools still are public schools, and cited EdisonLearning's creation of programs in Maryland that target certain populations, such as black and Hispanic boys.

But others, including members of the Black Legislative Caucus and civil rights groups, voiced strong opposition to the measure. They said they would rather the state focus on improving existing public schools in light of the $4.2 billion budget deficit, which has led McDonnell and lawmakers to propose slashing hundreds of millions in K-12 funding.

Sen. Henry Marsh, D-Richmond, said he considers the measure part of an attack on the existing K-12 system. Because applicants can appeal to the state, it could potentially "set up the machinery of those who oppose public schools (and give them) the freedom to operate," he said.

He asked for more study rather than pushing through the bill.

Committee member Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, questioned whether there's a need for new schools during a time of drastic budget cuts.

"Where's the money going to come from to provide something new and different? Where's the public demand?" said Edwards, who wondered if the system would ultimately spawn a type of voucher program that would undercut funding for traditional public schools.

Robinson said that education funding is allocated on a per-child basis no matter where they go to school, and while he acknowledged it's hard to gauge demand, parents want the option for an alternative to their local school.

Panel member Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, questioned whether students who don't get slots at charter schools would suffer or whether such schools actually can raise academic achievement.

Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, said he won't vote for the bill if it reaches the Senate floor because it opens the door for the creation of new schools that would compete with existing ones during a funding crisis. And though Robinson and others argue education dollars would follow each student, McEachin says funding isn't distributed solely according to that method.

And though VEA backs the new bill because it thinks that the measure retains safeguards against student discrimination, lobbyist Rob Jones asked legislators to consider the bill on its own merits, "and not on the dangling federal dollars."

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