How to save Virginia schools

Shake Hands by micadoXIn 2012 Virginia will have both a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled legislature – and 4 charter schools. Given the strictures of current charter school law in Virginia – and given the defeat of Virginia’s last major charter school bill (HB2314) – it’s likely that Virginia will see new charter school legislation passed before McDonnell leaves office.

To set the stage for charter school growth in Virginia in 2012, Governor Bob McDonnell hosted a meeting of state “charter school leaders” and “representatives from high-performing charter programs around the country.” While not highly attended by legislators, the number of charter management organizations (CMOs) represented at the meeting sent a clear message: it’s the governor’s intent to establish a beachhead of “high-performing” charter schools in Virginia run by CMOs that can provide a quick return on his political investment in the form of high pass rates on standardized tests.

The governor’s intent is to bring CMOs into Virginia to create a politically viable network of charter schools that will bear up under immediate scrutiny and clearly demonstrate a correlation between the money invested in the schools and their test scores.

This is a new turn in the reality of Virginia charter schools because the state’s four existing charter schools – while beholden to the SOL – didn’t open to increase student achievement as measured by standardized tests. (The following excerpts from school mission statements are taken from the state department of education website.)

The mission of Murray High School, which converted to charter status in 2001, “is to facilitate intensive, experiential learning opportunities in order to provide academic and personal success for students who are at-risk to leave school or to graduate below potential.”

York River Academy, opened in 2002, aims to provide “an academic, social, and career preparatory education in computer and web-based technology for students who may not graduate or graduate below potential.”

The Community Public Charter School, opened in 2008, is an “alternative and innovative learning environment using the arts to help children learn in ways that match their learning styles” with an “emphasis…on individual learning styles and developing the whole child, intellectually, emotionally, physically, and socially” because “it is the belief of the school that the arts are essential to human development, empowering people and enhancing learning.”

Virginia’s newest charter school, the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts – which opened in 2010 – seeks “to establish a school based on parent, educator, and community involvement” that offers “the children of the ethnically and socio-economically diverse Richmond community with an academically rigorous science and liberal arts curriculum that emphasizes environmental awareness and social responsibility.”

Despite the schools’ disparate and student-centric (rather than achievement-centric) missions, they survive.

The start-up difficulties experienced by both Murray High School and the Community Public Charter are well known in Albemarle County, but their successes – both immediate and eventual – are testament to the division’s determination to incubate and safeguard programs that meet students’ needs without undue consideration for bureaucracy.

York River Academy continues operation and recently moved into new facilities shared with the Boys & Girls Club.

Patrick Henry perseveres despite fiscal growing pains and the apparent hostility of the school board that approved it.

These schools matter to their students and communities and serve as examples of grass roots start-up efforts in Virginia schools. Because of their local origins and capacities to address local needs, these schools might not “scale up”, but the community-based processes used in their development are definitely replicable.

In fact, Virginia could have spent the last dozen years building a thriving network of locally-accountable charter schools, especially if the state had begun doing so before No Child Left Behind. Instead, the state’s schooling apparatus – including its state department of education, its state school board, its state teachers’ organization (the VEA), and most local school boards – has made the charter movement into a boogey man.

This strategy has completely backfired.

Charter opponents in Virginia had the chance to open dozens of Murray High Schools and York River Academies and Community Public Charter Schools and Patrick Henry Schools for Science and the Arts. Charter opponents could have called these places magnet schools or speciality centers or schools within schools. However, charter opponents did nothing to support school choice in Virginia – they did nothing to diversify the educational opportunities open to Virginia students growing up in a new, information-rich, innovation-hungry world.

Instead they opposed charter schools. They insisted that school remain a monoculture.

And now it’s time to reap what our fractious institutions have sown – school choice as a kill event for traditional public schools, rather than school choice as an evolution of them.

Because Virginia did not embrace local control of diverse charter schools when it could, Virginia’s public schools – including its charter schools – now face a cataclysm of lost opportunity.

Here we are with a Republican governor, a Republican legislature, and charter school legislation that will let a coalition of the willing open new CMO-operated charter schools with or without approval of any single local school board. These schools will be focused on student achievement – which means they will focus on high pass rates on standardized tests. They will be schools controlled by extra-local organizations pursuing state performance goals in a state that hasn’t signed on to the Common Core standards or pursued federal Race to the Top funding. The state and the CMOs will be financially beholden to one another without being accountable to parents, children, or federal oversight, however dubious its current value.

What does that mean?

It means that Virginia will be largely alone in American public education, pursuing high pass rates on standards unique to the state through the cooperation of a superintendent who likes the tests and CMOs that like to profit of test results. Traditional public schools will face increasing pressure to match the results of the CMO charter schools by adopting test-aligned teaching strategies that have already gutted arts programs and made learning a cut-and-dry matter of memorizing old facts rather than a vital process of discovering and applying new concepts and ideas.

The public schools our children attend will become isolated outposts on an island of academic grind. Virginia will ask its children to take test after test – and these tests will be aligned with standards written by Virginia policy makers according to Virginia politics. Our tests won’t speak to the Common Core standards adopted by dozens of other states. Thus our educational system will have little in common with those of other states, and that disparity could eventually impact our kids’ chances of admission to the colleges and careers they desire if admissions decisions come down to the quality and utility of standards underlying any two candidates’ educations.

How can we stand up to this onslaught of standardization? How can we save Virginia’s schools from the faint praise of having good test scores on Virginia tests?

We can look to our four charter schools. These schools have demonstrated a willingness to correct mistakes and to stay the course in fulfilling their missions. They have done so by serving their students before the state. They have put the whole child before a dissection of facts. They have undertaken new teaching and learning in a new world. They have taken care of the children entrusted to them.

We don’t need to recreate these schools, but we need to recapture the will to update local schools to address local needs in preparing kids for their future.

To make CMOs stakeholders in this uprising of community-based schooling, I propose the inclusion of charter school covenants in any deal made with a CMO looking to operate a nationally branded charter school in Virginia.

  1. First, any CMO opening a new charter school in Virginia should build and operate its own facility and agree to transfer the facility’s deed to the surrounding school division in case the CMO-run school closes.
  2. Furthermore, any CMO opening a new charter school in Virginia should fund the work of a local committee – made up of educators, students, parents, and community members – to develop a new, grass-roots charter school, magnet school, specialty center, or school within a school to serve the surrounding division.
  3. Finally, any CMO opening a new charter school in Virginia should be required to adopt and enact a mission that goes bend promoting student achievement on standardized tests and calls for some kind of juried portfolio or presentation of student work that demonstrates engagement with this mission as an exit requirement from the charter school. CMOs should retain students whose portfolios don’t demonstrate such engagement and absorb the cost of offering them an optional “post-graduate” year of studies in the area of the school’s mission.

CMOs are coming to Virginia, but we can’t confuse their work with the work of our grass-roots charter schools or let the CMOs overshadow the work our charter schools have done to serve their students and spur innovation in Virginia public education.

CMOs coming to Virginia should face a clear obligation to improve our kids’ quality of life, our kids’ quality of learning, and our communities’ futures – not just test scores. An outstanding education is an asset of human capital; SOL scores are not.

If CMOs aren’t willing to strike those deals and abide by those covenants, well, then, we should develop more schools of our own that will. We already know what to do.