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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.

Our Sources

McDonnell for Governor, "McDonnell unveils part two of education reform plan,” June 4, 2009.

E-mails from Taylor Thornley, spokeswoman for Governor Bob McDonnell, November 1, 2011.

Legislative Information Services, SB 737, accessed October 26, 2011.

Interview with Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, November 4, 2011.
Virginian-Pilot, "State updating startup rules for charter schools,” January 10, 2011.

Virginian-Pilot, "Education secretary challenges naysayers on charter schools,” September 5, 2010.

Virginian-Pilot, "Charter school law shows governor"s pragmatism,” June 27, 2010.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Governor says he wants more changes in K-12 education,” July 28, 2011.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, "McDonnell presses social as well as fiscal issues,” April 10, 2011.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Faces of 2010: Gov. McDonnell plans a bolder second year,” December 26, 2010.

The Center for Education Reform, "Choice & charter schools,” accessed November 2, 2011.

The Center for Education Reform, "Charter school law ranking and scorecard 2011,” accessed November 2, 2011.

Virginian-Pilot, "New laws of the land,” July 1, 2010.

Virginian-Pilot, "Despite critics schools bills have bipartisan support,” March 2, 2010.

Associated Press, "Charter school bill advances in house,” March 5, 2010.

Gov. Bob McDonnell op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Significant accomplishments in 100 days,” April 25, 2010.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, "At reconvened session, General Assembly approves 92 percent of governor"s amendments to budget and legislation,” April 22, 2010.

Governor Bob McDonnell, "Governor Bob McDonnell announces education reform legislation,” February 10, 2010.

Governor Bob McDonnell "Statement of the governor on Senate committee passage of McDonnell ‘Opportunity to Learn" education reform package and first ‘Race to the Top" competition,” March 4, 2011.

Governor Bob McDonnell, "‘Opportunity to Learn" legislative package to take effect Thursday,” June 28, 2010.

Governor Bob McDonnell, "Statement of Governor Bob McDonnell on Senate passage of ‘Opportunity to Learn" education reform agenda,” March 9, 2010.

Governor Bob McDonnell, "Governor McDonnell highlight successful charter school legislation,”  une 22, 2010.

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