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Va. House Approves Gov.'s Charter-School Bill

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The House of Delegates has approved legislation that would expand the state's role in the charter-school approval process, a measure backed by Gov. Bob McDonnell.

The Republican-dominated House voted Thursday afternoon 65-35, largely along party lines, to pass the bill. The legislation would give the state Department of Education a role in advising prospective charter-school providers on their applications before they go up for approval before local school boards. The local boards would retain ultimate authority to approve such schools.

The decision came despite floor speeches by a few legislators urging their colleagues to vote against the bill, saying it could encourage the creation of schools that leave some children behind by creating an inequitable structure in which only a few students could attend charter schools. They said the state should focus on improving its entire public-education system.

passage capped a major day of victories for one of McDonnell's cornerstone educational initiatives and a measure he promised last year in his campaign. Earlier in the day, the Democratic controlled Senate Education and Health Committee — commonly a killing field for GOP legislative priorities — endorsed a companion measure, advancing it to the Senate floor.

McDonnell and bill sponsors have been pushing the charter-school bill in part to strengthen Virginia's attempt to gain up to $350 million in federal Race to the Top stimulus funding for K-12 education. The U.S. Department of Education said Thursday that Virginia didn't make the cut for the first round of applications; unsuccessful applicants can reapply by June.

Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia Wright said that after receiving reviewers' feedback on Virginia's application, the state Board of Education, Gov. Bob McDonnell and stakeholders plan to work together to apply for the second round of grants, which will be awarded in September.

Charter schools receive public funding and must meet accountability benchmarks but can operate under certain less restrictive rules. There are three charter schools in Virginia; another is set to open this summer.

The Senate panel on Thursday also advanced a measure that would set up a framework for the state to regulate virtual schools and designate preferred vendors for such operations, along with legislation that would allow public colleges to set up laboratory schools to educate K-12 students.

Supporters of the bills said Virginia needs innovative programs to complement existing public-school offerings, and the state wants to ensure they measure up.

Critics, including members of the Black Legislative Caucus and civil rights groups, voiced strong opposition to McDonnell's education initiatives. They said that it doesn't make sense to push for new education delivery methods when millions of dollars in proposed funding cuts for schools would especially harm low-income and minority students.

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