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Sean Gorman
By Sean Gorman November 4, 2011

Charter bill watered down by General Assembly

Bob McDonnell lamented during his 2009 campaign that there were not enough charter schools in Virginia, and he promised to do something about it if elected governor.

Charter schools are primary or secondary schools that receive tax dollars but are not subject to all of the regulations and laws that govern public schools. In exchange for the waivers, the institutions sign a charter guaranteeing certain results.

McDonnell, during his campaign, said there were 4,600 charter schools nationwide but just a handful in Virginia.  He blamed the dearth, in part, on state laws that give local school boards total say on whether charter schools open in their divisions.

So McDonnell's campaign made a pledge:

"As governor, Bob McDonnell will propose alternative methods of establishing charter schools in Virginia, such as allowing the State Board of Education to approve applications,” his campaign said in a June 2009 news release.

Members of the Virginia Board of Education are appointed by the governor. So the change McDonnell sought would give governors indirect control over approval of charter schools.

Shortly after entering office in January 2010, McDonnell unveiled his "Opportunity to Learn” education reform agenda. The package included a bill that would give the state board greater authority in approving new charter schools.

Under the bill, a charter application would be sent to the state board for consideration even before being sent to the local school board for review. Virginia officials would recommend whether the local school board should approve the application. If local officials rejected the charter school, the legislation set up an an appeals process to the state Board of Education, which had the final say on the application.

The General Assembly passed a watered-down bill that keeps decisions on granting applications solely with local school boards. It provides a process by which a charter school whose application was denied could return to the local school board for reconsideration.

Prior to the reconsideration, the charter school could seek technical assistance from the state superintendent of instruction in addressing the reasons for the denial.

McDonnell signed the bill. Taylor Thornley, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the legislation "significantly improves the application and review process for public charter school applicants ultimately providing more options and innovations for Virginia school children who are at-risk or in underperforming school systems.”

But even with the changes, Virginia's charter school law was graded "F” by the Center for Education Reform, a group that advocates charter schools. In a 2011 report, the group said Virginia's law was the second weakest out of the 41 charter school laws in the U.S.

Among the complaints the group had with the Virginia law is that when a school board denies a charter application, the only recourse is to re-apply to the same panel.

There are now four charter schools in Virginia, the same number McDonnell cited in 2009.

Thornley said McDonnell is still exploring other legislation that would foster charter school expansion. She said she could not provide details.

McDonnell, however, didn't pledge to pass the strongest charter school bill in the country.
He vowed to propose legislation that would give state officials much more say in opening new charter schools. The governor did that, and we rate it a Promise Kept.
 

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