Charter schools get a powerful ally in Virginia

A prominent state politician is working to get charter school authority into Virginia's state constitution —  a popular move among education reformers that critics say could threaten local control of schools. 

State Sen. Mark Obenshain, who announced last week he would not seek the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2017,  is focusing on amending Virginia's constitution to empower the state Board of Education to establish charter schools. 

Obenshain's amendment, SJ 256, would establish that state authority by adding a single sentence to Article VIII of the commonwealth's founding document, one of the oldest state constitutions in the nation.  Under current Virginia law, only local school boards have the authority to create charter schools.

The change has generated a great deal of controversy.

The amendment passed the state Senate on a 21 to 17 party line vote. The Republican dominated House of Delegates voted 58-42 in favor.

The Virginia Education Association opposed the measure in both chambers, and will do so again in the 2016 session. Writing in the Jefferson Policy Journal, Robley Jones, the union's government relations director, called the amendment "radical" and a threat to local control.

"Obenshain's proposal dramatically shifts this decision (to create charter schools) away from a local school board, which is directly accountable to the people by virtue of election or by appointment by those who are elected, to a state-level policy board appointed by the governor," Jones wrote.

In its 2015 review of state charter school laws, the Center for Education Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based pro-charter group, ranks Virginia in 48th place.

"Despite the continued animosity of these boards to charters, the state’s elected leaders have failed to make meaningful changes to the charter law," the Center wrote in its F report card on the state. "The results have been very few opportunities in a surprisingly diverse state when it comes to its student population."

For Obenshain, that's why a constitutional amendment is necessary.

Obenshain, who represents a sprawling Shenandoah Valley district, told AMI Newswire, "It's time to bring Virginia in line with the majority of states on charters."

"The only people against the idea," he said, "are the unions. The Virginia Education Association is working against kids, parents, and their own members, who want the freedom charters give them to teach kids without having to worry about red tape and bureaucracy."

Constitutional amendments must pass the General Assembly twice before being placed on the ballot. If an election occurs between the sessions, an amendment passed in the first session is automatically carried into the second. The governor has no official role in the process.

Asked about the charter school amendment's prospects next year, Obenshain was cautious.

"We're going to have to fight for every vote on this in the Senate," he said.  

But he also sees potential long-term political benefit in working to provide education choices for parents in distressed areas of the state.  

"There's not a lot of call for charters in Rockingham County," Obenshain said. "But in Petersburg, Norfolk and Richmond, there is. And we hope the people in those areas are looking at who is supporting better educational opportunities for their children. It's not the guys they are voting for. It's Republicans in rural areas who are fighting for their kids."