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Charter school law precludes innovation
Chris Braunlich's op-ed column on charter schools in Virginia

 Charter school third-graders in New Jersey play a multiplication game using dice. Charter schools generally have some freedom to experiment with teaching methodologies.
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Date published: 11/13/2012


--In the film adaptation of Joseph Heller's anti-war novel, Capt. John Yossarian defines the term Catch-22 this way: "In order to be grounded, I've got to be crazy and I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I'm not crazy any more and I have to keep flying."

Yossarian had nothing on Virginia's charter school law. In the Catch-22 of Virginia charter schools, only schools that look like traditional public schools can be approved. In which case, they are not innovative and need not be approved.

In the rest of America, charter schools are publicly funded independent schools established by teachers, parents, or community groups under the terms of a charter issued by an educational institution. Charter schools like KIPP Academy, Aspire, and the Harlem Children's Zone demonstrate daily that the achievement gap can be closed and that every child, regardless of where they live or their socio-economic status, can achieve at high academic levels.

Today, there are more than 5,600 public charter schools in the U.S., serving 2 million schoolchildren.

In Virginia, there are exactly four, with a combined enrollment of 423 students.

Why so few? One reason is that local school boards are the only entities that can authorize charter schools in Virginia, and they regularly demonstrate their resistance to any change or improvement they cannot control. In fact, half of Virginia's charters were started by the school divisions that approved them (a surefire guarantee of control). And those drafting charter school applications report that school systems frequently refuse to discuss key components (like financing), so that applicants are largely taking a shot in the dark.

No wonder the most successful charter school operators have expressed no interest in coming to Virginia.


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