Virginians See Slow Change, New Hope, for Education

Published December 24, 2009

The impending arrival of a new administration in the Commonwealth of Virginia has raised school choice advocates’ hopes, but they don’t expect change to come quickly.

Republican Governor-elect Bob McDonnell handily defeated Democrat Creigh Deeds in the November 3 general election—shifting not only the party in power, but also Virginia’s education agenda.

“It’s going to be a change of direction, clearly,” said state Del. Chris Saxman (R-Staunton), who serves as co-chair of McDonnell’s K-12 education transition team.

Upcoming Shifts

Christian Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, a think tank in Springfield, agrees.

“I think choice supporters are guardedly optimistic that there will be a better environment in which to advocate for school choice,” he said.

Saxman cautioned, however, that any changes to Virginia’s K-12 schooling policy will take time because of the considerable power of the nine-member State Board of Education. McDonnell will have the power to replace board members as their terms expire. Two complete their service in 2010, and three more in 2011.

“Changes in Virginia don’t come quickly,” Saxman said.

Debating Charter Law

McDonnell’s 2009 campaign included a call to expand the number of public charter schools in Virginia. The state currently has four charters, all middle or high schools, enrolling fewer than 300 students in total.

The Center for Education Reform, a national advocacy group based in Bethesda, Maryland, has rated Virginia’s charter school law as the second-worst in the nation. In addition, a state constitutional provision granting local boards the authority to supervise all public schools would make it difficult to allow new charter authorizers or expand the appeals process.

Frank Barham, executive director of the Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA), believes the state’s current charter law provides an appropriate level of accountability. He cited a May 2009 State Board of Education survey in which more Virginia local superintendents said district fiscal barriers and a lack of parental demand are greater obstacles to charter school growth than the restrictiveness of state law.

“We’re simply opposed to charter schools that have no accountability requirements,” Barham said.

Saxman says the VSBA’s claims that accountability is charter schools’ biggest impediment to growth.

“I think you can have accountability standards that will meet the public’s criteria for taxpayer-supported education,” he said, “whether or not the legislature agrees to what’s currently in law as the way to support innovation and creativity in public schools.”

Support for Tax Credits

Other groups in the state advocate adding private school tuition tax credits as another solution to address academic challenges in the poorer regions of the state.

“Tax credit legislation would be a win-win for both public and nonpublic schools,” said Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference (VCC).

During the campaign, McDonnell completed a VCC questionnaire indicating his support for both corporate tax credits to offset private scholarship donations and personal tax credits for parents’ education expenses. McDonnell attended Catholic schools and was honored in April 2009 for his role in helping raise money to save Petersburg’s St. Joseph School.

An October 2009 survey commissioned by VCC and the Friedman Foundation found two-thirds of Virginia voters favor the idea of tax credit scholarships. Barham opposes this policy approach, however, arguing instead for legislation to allow more local flexibility to reduce class sizes for at-risk and needy students.

Gathering Info

For five consecutive years Saxman has introduced in the legislature a tax credit bill that passed the House but was bottled up and defeated by the Senate Finance Committee.

“The goal over the next few years will be to grow support in that committee,” Caruso said.

Saxman says his team has yet to hold any conversations on tax credits, though consideration has been given to private school vouchers for special-needs students and military dependents. The transition team is charged with gathering information for a report on strategic policy initiatives to the governor-elect to be submitted by January 4.

Expanding Innovations

One policy area garnering a lot of attention from McDonnell’s transition team is online education.

“While virtual schools were taking off across the country, it has not been a priority for the last two administrations” in Virginia, Saxman said. He suggests the next administration may look to build connections with the state’s higher education system to expand cyberschooling opportunities.

Other issues given serious examination by the transition team include merit pay, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) initiatives, character education, and dropout prevention.

In light of large revenue deficits that threaten to affect Virginia’s K-12 education funding in the near future, plus a desire to grasp the issues and make sound decisions, Saxman advises a deliberate and determined approach will be needed to turn around what he calls “a $7 billion enterprise.”

“But people are beginning to recognize more and more there are areas where we are lagging,” he said, “and innovation and private sector choices are a real consideration.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.