HARRISONBURG — The General Assembly will continue the charter school debate this year.
State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, has once again introduced legislation that would give the Virginia Board of Education the authority to create charter school districts and approve the schools.
Charter schools are institutions that receive public funding and operate
independently of public school systems.
Supporters of charter schools say they expand choices for parents in struggling school divisions. Opponents, however, say they divert money from public schools and operate without oversight.
Under Virginia code, local school boards have the sole authority to create charter schools. Nine are operating in the state, including two in Albemarle County.
The bill would allow the Board of Education to create regional charter school districts. A district must include two or three public school divisions totaling at least 3,000 students where at least one school has been denied accreditation twice in the preceding three years, according to the proposed legislation.
“I have listened to opponents and have carefully drafted the bill so that it will focus on regions with truly failing schools,” Obenshain said in a press release.
The districts would be supervised by a school board consisting of eight members appointed by the state Board of Education. Each locality within a regional district also would appoint a member.
The regional board and state Board of Education would review and approve charter school applications and contracts with applicants.
“Control of education rests with the local school boards,” Rockingham County Schools Superintendent Oskar Scheikl said. “This is one of those cases where that control would be taken away.”
State funding based on enrollment would be diverted from the underlying public school division to the charter school for every student who attends it.
Existing charter schools receive some state money from a fund the General Assembly created in 2007. No taxpayer money is sent to the fund, only grants or donations to the state Treasury Department.
Harrisonburg Schools Superintendent Scott Kizner said that while students shouldn’t be stuck in struggling school divisions, those divisions should receive more support instead of less funding.
“Sometimes, schools aren’t able to give students what they need because they don’t have the funding and resources to give students what they need to be successful,” Kizner said.
In a press release, Obenshain said charter schools allow “for more autonomy and innovation in the administration and the classroom.” Kizner said that should also apply to public schools.
“If there are things that are going to benefit children, it should be an opportunity for all students,” he said. “If a public charter school has a formula that can benefit children, why not change the regulations so all students can benefit?”
Scheikl and Kizner said the law wouldn’t affect this area because all city and county public schools are fully or partially accredited.
Although the proposal isn’t an “immediate concern,” Scheikl said he is worried with “the precedent it sets” if some schools fall below the line.
“That would mean that all of a sudden, the state funding that would normally go to the local school division goes to that charter school,” he said.
Obenshain’s previous attempts at charter school legislation have been defeated several times.
He and Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, presented nearly identical bills in 2017 that made it through the General Assembly only to be vetoed by former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
In 2016, the legislation died in the Senate. Among its opponents were the Harrisonburg and Rockingham County school boards, which passed resolutions opposing the proposals.
Obenshain’s proposed measure failed in the Senate in 2015 after a Republican senator broke ranks to side with Democrats, resulting in a 20-20 tie.
Obenshain couldn’t be reached for comment on Wednesday.