Virginia Lawmakers Approve Ballot Question Allowing Charter School Expansion

Published March 3, 2016

Eighteen years after Virginia lawmakers passed a law bringing a limited amount of school choice options to the state, lawmakers are putting a question before voters that could revise the state’s constitution and increase the ability of parents to enroll their children in alternatives to traditional government schools.

If approved by voters in November, the ballot question would remove government school boards’ ability to veto the founding of charter schools within the government school district’s geographic boundaries.

Voter Power, Not Veto Power

State Del. Robert Bell (R-Charlottesville), the sponsor of the legislative referendum question, says the current way of doing things gives government schools the power to quash potential competition.

“There are only nine charters in Virginia, and the reason is that the current law requires local approval,” Bell said. “The total local veto power means that the school boards don’t have to work with the charter proponents; they can just say ‘no.’ The amendment would allow an alternate route for charters, such as other states have done, like in North Carolina, which has created many more charters than Virginia.”

Getting Kids Unstuck

Bell says it’s all about choice and making schools compete to attract students.

“There are always going to be kids that aren’t optimally served by the traditional public school model, and if they are not from a wealthy family, then they are stuck,” Bell said. “I am aware that some charter schools do great and others don’t, but that is true for public schools as well. But even in the really good public school districts, there are still students for whom it is better to [attend a] charter [school].

“Firstly, charter schools provide students and their families with choice,” Bell said. “Secondly, such schools also provide choice for public schools, as a sort of pilot to adapt what works well.”

Captured by Regulations

Christian Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, says the state’s lack of charter schools is evidence of what economists call “regulatory capture.”

“Virginia’s constitution puts all authority for operating public schools in the hands of local school boards,” Braunlich said. “The [Virginia] School Boards Association has been proud of the fact that when the initial charter school law came about, they wrote it so they could live with it. The result has been few charter schools.”

Getting ‘Real’ About Education

Braunlich says the ballot amendment is only a single step toward bringing positive change to Virginia’s education system.

“By itself, a constitutional amendment will only open the gate to having further discussions about what state-authorized charters should look like,” Braunlich said. “The issue goes beyond just whether local boards should be the only ones to authorize charter schools. Virginia needs to have a serious discussion about what it needs to do to encourage more innovation, more flexibility, and more accountability based on real results.”

D. Brady Nelson ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.