HARRISONBURG — Whether the state will open more charter schools may be out of the hands of local school boards if a bill penned by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, passes in the General Assembly.
Obenshain took an opportunity to highlight charter schools legislation he’s carrying in the 2013 session following Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Wednesday announcement about the third part of his K-12 legislative agenda.
McDonnell announced measures he wants the state to take to help failing schools and called for changes to charter school laws, including a constitutional amendment to allow the Virginia Board of Education to authorize the alternative schools. Charter schools receive state funding but are not subject to all the same rules and regulations as traditional public schools.
The constitutional amendment giving the Board of Education power to review charter applications has been written into bills championed by Obenshain and Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge.
“Charter schools work because they provide the flexibility to meet the needs of students who don’t excel in more traditional school settings,” Obenshain said in a press release from his office on Wednesday. “I am excited to have the governor as an ally in the effort to expand educational opportunity for all Virginians.”
Obenshain could not be reached for comment Thursday.
In Virginia, charter schools must meet certain benchmarks, including Standards of Learning test requirements, but they are free from staffing and curriculum requirements.
Local public school officials aren’t fond of changes to the current law, which mandates that a charter school must first gain the approval of the school board in the area it will serve before being allowed to open.
“I am not sure how bureaucrats in Richmond who are not part of a community are in a position to tell a community what they want or don’t want,” Harrisonburg City Schools Superintendent Scott Kizner said.
Virginia has only four charter schools and consistently ranks low compared to other states for how easy it is to start one. Today, 41 states and the District of Columbia have such statutes.
“Virginia is having its lunch eaten by the Washington, D.C., public education system, and that’s saying something,” Obenshain said during an interview with the Daily News-Record prior to the start of this year’s legislative session, which began Wednesday.
Obenshain is carrying a bill similar to legislation he introduced last year that would allow charter schools to choose if their employees will participate in the Virginia Retirement System. That bill also would require only a certain percentage of charter employees be certified.
The fact that charter schools get state dollars but have less strict standards is one of local educators’ biggest qualms with the alternative schools.
“Why not provide that relief to all these [public] schools and see if the results improve?” Kizner asked.
Obenshain, in remarks made to the DN-R earlier this month, pointed out that Harrisonburg and Rockingham County would likely not be places where charters would be pursued.
“Just because we here have good schools ... doesn’t mean there are folks out there who aren’t being left behind,” he said.
Kizner and Rockingham County Schools Superintendent Carol Fenn said they are not opposed to providing more choices for Virginia’s students, but that local school boards are in a better position to decide if a charter school is right for the locality.
Funding is another concern.
“I would not want to take funding away from our current public school support,” Fenn said. “We have already cut over $8 million in the last four years from Rockingham Public Schools, so to further reduce state funding to [the division] will have a detrimental effect on the quality of education.”
— Daily News-Record reporter Preston Knight contributed to this story.
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