Virginia’s School Choice Policies Contrast with District of Columbia
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) last week released its annual Report Card on American Education, where it grades states’ education policy based on six areas: state academic standards, charter school laws, home-school regulations, private school choice programs, overall teacher quality and policies and digital learning opportunities. Interestingly, states sharing the same border often receive very different rankings.
For example, Virginia education policies ranked very differently from neighboring Washington, D.C. Virginia received a cumulative “C-” while the District received a cumulative “B-”. Notably, the District provides families greater flexibility with more than 100 charter locations serving nearly 40,000 students, or 43 percent of D.C.’s public school population in the 2012-13 school year. More than 20,000 students are on waiting lists to attend a D.C. charter school—a staggering comparison to the state of Virginia, where six charter schools educate only 700 students.
The District’s most at-risk students are the most likely to take advantage of charter schools: 77 percent of charter students qualified for a free-or-reduced-price lunch in the 2011-12 school year against 69 percent of those in traditional public schools. That compared to 41 percent of all Virginia students.
The District is much more accommodating to families who want more options for their children, in part because at-risk families are harder to ignore when they constitute a strong majority of the population. States that have a smaller at-risk constituency are less prone to policy measures that look after them.
Additionally, the District has stronger measures than Virginia in place to ensure the possibility of school choice. In D.C., the Public Charter School Board (PCSB) is responsible for authorizing charter schools. Relatively independent boards are ideal for authorizing charter schools, and D.C. law permits the city council to create additional authorizers if they deem it necessary.
In Virginia, only local school boards are permitted to authorize charter schools. In most cases, the state’s board of education is required to approve charter applications before they even begin the authorization process. Local school boards – who often view charter schools as competition – are by no means obligated to approve them once they have made it past the board of education.
The Virginia School Board Association (VSBA) is not keen on losing its monopolistic power anytime soon. “There should be no changes to the charter school law unless initiated by local school boards through the VSBA,” it writes in one report. On the topic of charter schools blocked by local school boards, the VSBA believes “there should be no appeal allowed to any entity.”
Some in the Virginia legislature have attempted repeatedly to pass legislation to allow more charter school authorizers, with a constitutional amendment to that effect failing by one vote in 2013. Virginia’s students would benefit from some much-needed freedom of choice in education, a fact conspicuously highlighted by their adjacency to the more successful model in Washington, D.C.