Feb 2, 2022
Richmond Times Dispatch
A bill backed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin that would have created an easier path for charter schools to open around the state was shut down Thursday by a key Senate panel.
The bill would have given the state more power to approve charter school applications by establishing regional entities that could authorize such schools; charter school applications are now subject to the will of local school boards.
Charter schools, which operate using public dollars but with some independence from local school boards, are rare in Virginia. Youngkin ran on promises to expand that number, proposing at least 20 new charter schools but also telling supporters during campaign events that he hoped to see up to 200.
The bill the Democratic-led Senate education panel rejected on an 8-7 vote is just one of three proposals from the Youngkin administration to grow the charter school footprint in Virginia. A Youngkin spokesperson said Thursday that the administration is hopeful about a different bill that would allow colleges and private businesses to open charters.
Youngkin and Republicans in the legislature say charter schools could be a response to parent frustration with their local schools, in part brought on by pandemic policies, and an innovative way to improve education for students in underperforming schools. Democrats have argued that the state’s education dollars are better focused on the current public school system.
On Thursday, the Senate panel also voted 9-4 along party lines to shut down a Youngkin-backed bill that would have banned the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts” in public schools. Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, who recommended that the panel reject the bill, said the patron, Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, did not clearly define the concepts that the bill would ban.
The House version of the bill is still moving through that chamber, as is a budget amendment Youngkin proposed to ban schools from teaching “inherently divisive concepts.”
An executive order directing state education officials to end the use of “inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory,” in state policy is also in effect.
With the exception of Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, Democrats on the Senate Education and Health panel voted against the charter school measure. The bill was introduced by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham. Key votes against the bill included Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, president pro tempore of the Senate.
The bill would have allowed the state Board of Education to create “regional charter school divisions” made up of two or three localities. Each of the localities would have to enroll at least 3,000 students and include schools struggling with student performance in math and English standardized tests.
The regional bodies would have the power to approve new charter schools. A majority of the board would be appointed by the state Board of Education. Localities would have the minority of power and would be unable to reject charter school applicants — outnumbered by board members appointed by a charter-friendly state government, at least while Youngkin is in office.
Obenshain and supporters of the bill argue that the local approval requirement is a fatal hurdle for charter schools: They need authorization to open from the local school district, which would compete with the school for enrollment and at least some of the funding attached to those students.
“There’s an incredible unfairness in how our schools are now attributed, and that is by ZIP code,” said Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, who backed the bill. “There are Virginians who cannot choose where they live, and they end up going to the schools that have the least likelihood of helping them access the education that they need.”
Lucas said she “found it really strange” that instead of dedicating more funding toward reducing school sizes, the panel was weighing directing funding to a new system. Saslaw said the bill would hurt small localities that would lose some funding as their students moved to a charter school.
Obenshain said the bill excluded localities with fewer than 3,000 students for that reason. Saslaw said many districts with more than 3,000 students could still struggle. “They’re going to get killed by this,” Saslaw said.
Obenshain’s bill as it came before the committee would have left some per-student state funding at the neighborhood school for every child who opts for the new charter — a compromise to help the bill along.
Obenshain said he does not expect the kind of draw to charter schools that would decimate local district funding.
“If it is the case, I would say that that school division’s got a real big problem because the parents want what the charter schools are delivering, and that their local school division is not,” Obenshain said.
Legislation mirroring Obenshain’s bill is moving through the GOP-led House.
Democrats in a Senate subcommittee on Thursday also rejected legislation that would give the state Board of Education the power to approve charter schools.
The only seemingly viable charter school bill in the Senate is a bill from Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, that would let the state Board of Education approve charter schools specifically operated by colleges, universities or private businesses. That bill refers to the schools as “lab schools,” though Youngkin has said the terms are interchangeable and has not delineated differences.
“The governor is working with a bipartisan group of lawmakers on legislation to expand lab schools as part of the Day One Game Plan and he looks forward to finding a path forward,” said Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter.