HARRISONBURG — Legislation sponsored by two Valley Republican legislators seeking to expand charter schools in the commonwealth is making its way to Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s desk.
On Monday, a bill that would authorize the Virginia Board of Education to create regional charter school districts and school boards passed the House of Delegates, 54-43. It was introduced by state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, and a similar bill was sponsored in the House by Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave.
The Senate passed the legislation 21-19 on Feb. 7, after a Democrat, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, crossed party lines in the nearly evenly divided chamber to vote “Yea.”
That vote was essential because a Republican from the Valley, Sen. Emmett Hanger of Mount Solon, one of the legislature’s most moderate Republicans, also crossed party lines to vote against the bill.
Hanger could not be reached for comment Tuesday or Wednesday.
“This has been at the top of my agenda, and it’s going to the governor’s desk, and I think we have a very good chance of getting his signature,” Obenshain said Tuesday.
A spokesman for McAuliffe did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Local school boards now have the sole authority to create charter schools, which receive public funding but operate independently of public school systems.
Nine charter schools have been established in Virginia, including two in Albemarle County.
Charter school supporters say they expand choices for parents and could help in failing public school divisions, but opponents say they divert money from public schools and have insufficient oversight.
A regional charter school district, under Obenshain’s legislation, must include at least two public school districts totaling at least 3,000 students where at least one school has been denied accreditation twice in the preceding three years.
Charter districts would be supervised by a school board consisting of eight members appointed by the Board of Education. Each locality within a regional district also would appoint a member.
Harrisonburg City Public Schools Superintendent Scott Kizner supports the bill’s purpose of assisting struggling students. However, he thinks decisions about how communities run their schools should be made at the local level — not by people stationed in Richmond.
“The school board would be political appointees, which means there’s no accountability,” Kizner said. “And I think that when people elect a local official, if they’re not satisfied with what’s taking place, they can always vote differently next time.”
Obenshain said the legislation, if signed by McAuliffe, would only affect 10 divisions throughout Virginia, including Petersburg City and Norfolk City public schools.
“No school in the Valley would be affected, nor would any area with good quality schools,” he added. “But I feel it is immoral to say that just because we have good quality schools, nothing should be done in the high-population, low-income areas this bill would affect.”
The bill was supported other members of the Valley delegation to the General Assembly, including Republican Dels. Tony Wilt of Broadway, Todd Gilbert of Woodstock and Rob Bell of Albemarle.