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House OKs amendment to increase charter schools

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RICHMOND, Va. — By a 52-47 vote, the Virginia House of Delegates on Friday approved a constitutional amendment that could open the doors for more charter schools in the state.

House Joint Resolution 1, introduced by Delegate Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, would allow the State Board of Education to authorize such schools if the local school board refuses. Republicans have championed the issue, saying Virginia school districts have thwarted attempts to create charter schools, which are public schools that are freed from certain regulations and often offer innovative or specialized programs.

Increasing the number of charter schools was a priority on the GOP education agenda for this legislative session. Virginia has nine charter schools; several states have hundreds. Nationwide, there are more than 6,400 charter schools.

“Public charter schools are some of the nation’s most successful public schools,” said Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, who chairs the House Education Committee.

If both houses of the General Assembly approve the proposed constitutional amendment and related legislation, the issue would be put on the ballot in this November’s general election for a statewide vote.

Delegates also are considering House Bill 3, which would authorize a referendum on the proposed constitutional amendment. This bill was engrossed Friday and will return to the House floor for a final vote next week.

Opposition to the charter school initiative was vocalized during the debate over HB 565, which was also on the floor Friday. The bill would set rules for the establishment and operation of charter schools – specifying, for example, that such schools must be managed by a nonprofit education organization under the control of a governing board.

Del. Dave Albo, R-Springfield, offered an amendment to HB 565 stating that “the Commonwealth or the public charter school applicant will pay for the construction of such public charter school.”

“The problem I have with the concept of these charter schools is not that I don’t like charter schools, but I want to know who is going to pay for it,” Albo said.

Republican Dels. Bob Marshall of Manassas and Tag Greason of Loudoun County criticized the amendment. They voiced concern over its exacting terms: funding the construction of new schools but not the renovations of existing buildings. House Speaker William J.

Howell, R-Stafford, commented that the amendment was “inartfully drawn.”

Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, spoke in its favor: “Without the gentleman from Fairfax’s amendment, it is possible that the state could override the locality and have a charter school go in place with no plan for the building it’s going to be in,” she said. “Then the locality will be on the hook to build it.”

Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, responded in opposition to the amendment. “We have seen step after step after step to try to take charters of the table,” he said. “I’m not sure she (Delegate McClellan) would vote for the underlying bill.”
Indeed, after the amendment was approved in a vote of 66-28, McClellan spoke in opposition to HB 565. She cited the period of Massive Resistance, when Virginia shut down public schools to block racial integration, as the only time since Reconstruction when the

General Assembly encroached on local control of public education.

“That is why there are a large number of people who do not believe it is a good idea to take control away from the locality in deciding whether and how to implement charter schools,” McClellan said.

She cited studies that found charter schools have not improved academic performance across the country, noting that the charter school in Richmond failed to be accredited this year.
HB 565 and HB 3 will return to the floor next week for a final vote.

Meanwhile, the issue also is before the Senate: Senate Joint Resolution 6 would amend the Virginia Constitution the same way HJR 1 would; and SJR 93 and Senate Bill 588 would authorize a statewide referendum on the amendment. All of those measures are to be voted on in the Senate next week.

Under the proposed constitutional amendment, a group that wants to start a charter school would first apply to the local school board. If the school board denies the application, the decision could be appealed to the State Board of Education. The State Board would be limited to hearing five appeals per year.

“Charter schools provide parents and students with additional opportunities,” Bell said. “Not every child is a good fit for traditional public schools, but every child deserves the opportunity to succeed.” He cited studies showing that charter schools “help to close the achievement gap, giving children in minority and underserved communities the opportunity to succeed.”

But public school teachers oppose charter schools. They fear that such programs will divert money and resources from regular public schools.

Howell hailed the House vote in favor of HJR 1.

“The fact that this legislation is House Joint Resolution 1 demonstrates how important this amendment is to the House of Delegates and the Commonwealth of Virginia,” he said. “We have an historic opportunity to bring about a meaningful change in our education system.”

By Grant Smith/Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.