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Senate OKs Amendment to Boost Charter Schools

February 5, 2015

By Michael Melkonian
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia could see a surge in charter schools in coming years as a proposed constitutional amendment begins the long journey toward passage.

On a 21-17 vote, the Virginia Senate approved a joint resolution that would amend the Constitution of Virginia to allow the state Board of Education to establish such semi-autonomous specialty schools.

The sponsor of Senate Joint Resolution 256, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, said that there is a high demand for charter schools and that Virginia is falling behind other states by not creating more.

“There’s a 325,000-person line nationwide,” Obenshain told his colleagues Wednesday in urging support for his resolution. “Those aren’t just numbers or digits; they’re moms and dads and kids who are looking for opportunities across the country. The answer in Virginia is not to make fewer slots available.”

The commonwealth currently has seven charter schools, including the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts in Richmond. “Charter schools are public schools granted autonomy to operate outside local school district policies, in exchange for maintaining agreed-upon levels of academic achievement by students,” the Patrick Henry School explains on its website.

For example, students must apply to attend the Patrick Henry School, which serves 200 children in kindergarten through fifth grade and has a strong emphasis on environmental education. Among other features, the school has a dress code, and parents must volunteer at least six hours per quarter to help with school activities.

Amendment opponents like Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, questioned the demand for charter schools and said it was like trying to win the lottery to get into one. Edwards said the state’s money could be better spent on existing schools.

“Let’s not divert public school money for charter schools. We don’t have enough money for public schools as it is,” Edwards said.

Proponents of Obenshain’s resolution said that although Virginia has many high-ranking public schools, some schools provide a poor-quality education for their students. They said charter schools would give children an alternative environment where they can succeed.

“I’m not one who believes in a silver bullet, a panacea, a simple way to fix Virginia schools. But I do believe that we need to do things and find ways to work together,” Obenshain said.

Charter schools are allowed under current law in Virginia, but they can be authorized only by a public school division – and few school divisions have approved them. The proposed constitutional amendment would empower the Virginia Board of Education to authorize charter schools directly.

The charter school movement has taken off in many states. Florida, for instance, has more than 500 charter schools. Nationwide, there are about 6,000 charter schools enrolling more than 2 million students.

SJ 256 now moves to the House of Delegates for consideration. If successful this year, the resolution must pass again in 2016 before being placed on the ballot for a statewide vote in the 2016 general election.

Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Springfield, said he agreed with Edwards about the funding problems that public schools face. Saslaw said he couldn’t wait through the lengthy process for the proposed constitutional amendment to come to fruition to see if it will be worth it.

“We’re not talking about wine,” Saslaw said. “This isn’t going to get any better next year with age. We have a terrible problem with trying to finance public education the way it is now.”

Two House resolutions similar to SJ 256 also have been filed: HJ 526 by Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, and HJ 577 by Del. Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville.

On Monday, a subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee voted 5-2 to recommend approval of Bell’s resolution. The subcommittee has not acted on Lingamfelter’s resolution.