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What to know about the charter school debate

Person speaking at lectern
Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) speaks at a press conference discussing Republican legislative priorities, including expanding charter schools. (Photo: Scott Elmquist/Style Weekly)

Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin has repeatedly stated that he wants to open 20 charter schools in Virginia. But the nitty-gritty details of how he plans to achieve that are uncertain.

Youngkin’s press office did not respond to specific questions seeking his plan’s details: like how and where he wants to open these schools and who he wants to run or authorize them. 

Charter schools are highly controversial and often misunderstood. Research about their effectiveness is also mixed. So we wanted to answer a few basic questions about them and explain what more charter schools could mean for Virginia’s traditional public schools.

What is a charter school, and what makes it different from a traditional public school or private school?

Charter schools are tuition-free, publicly funded, independently run schools. They’re legally considered public schools under Virginia law, which means students who attend charter schools receive the same per-pupil dollars as students who attend traditional public schools. Under state law, all students who live in the locality where the charter school is located are entitled to admission through a lottery system.

In Virginia, charter schools are required to report the same data and information to the Virginia Department of Education as traditional public schools, according to VDOE. They must also administer the same state tests other public schools do. But charter schools aren’t subject to all of the same requirements traditional public schools are. That’s because they’re governed by private boards that essentially run the schools and oversee the school’s mission and vision.

Charter schools in Virginia aren’t required to offer transportation, for example. They also have freedom over things like curriculum. When Richmond Public Schools rolled out a new math curriculum districtwide in 2020, the Patrick Henry School of the Arts - a charter school in the district - chose not to adopt it. They also have control over codes of conduct, which include rules regarding discipline, attendance and dress code. Patrick Henry requires student uniforms, for example.

What do experts say are the benefits of charter schools?

Ted Kolderie, a former Minnesota-based education reporter, helped create the nation’s first charter law in the early 1990s and helped many other states design their own charter laws.

As Kolderie told NPR in 2017, “people have to understand, chartering laws don't create schools. It is enabling legislation that sets up a process for people to create schools. The charter sector was supposed to encourage innovation — pedagogical laboratories that would push new ways to teach, even if it was disruptive.”

That innovation, says Heritage Foundation education fellow Jonathan Butcher, makes charter schools nimble and able to more quickly adjust their curriculum to meet students’ needs.

“They're meant to help students from any number of backgrounds,” Butcher said. “They can have certain goals that the charter embraces, such as helping for dropout prevention, or they could focus on STEM, or they could focus on foreign language. I know of charter schools in South Carolina and other states where they are Chinese immersion schools that teach in both Mandarin as well as English. These are exciting options that will appeal to students from across the socio-economic spectrum.”

​​Andrene Castro, a professor in the department of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, has researched charter schools in other states. She says in the 1990s, public schools were failing to address the curricular needs as well as cultural and experiential assets of Black students. In response, community organizations opened up Afro-centric charter schools in cities like Chicago and New York.

“There are elements of innovation that I think are great about what charter schools can offer, particularly now when teachers are under considerable pressure to limit the types of culturally responsive learning that may mention race in our current climate,” Castro said. “That might be frustrating for a teacher who can then find that flexibility and curricular innovation in a charter school.”

Charter schools in other states have not been immune from political interference around race, however. Texas Education Agency officials recently forced a newly formed San Antonia charter school to remove an anti-racist quote from the academic Ibram X. Kendi from its website before it was allowed to open.

Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, argues that the best charter schools are not often doing things that are dramatically different than what other schools are doing but are “simply executing them better.”

”The autonomous organizational structure just allows you to do things that you can't always do in the traditional public system,” Rotherham said.

What do experts say are the pitfalls of charter schools?

Castro has also studied the effects of charter schools on teacher labor markets. Her research has found that teachers who choose to teach in charter schools are more likely to be younger, unskilled and paid much less than teachers at traditional public schools.

Teaching jobs at charter schools tend to be “unstable. They’re lower pay. You might be working more hours or excessive hours for a lesser rate than you would in the primary market [for traditional public schools,]” Castro said. “And you also have challenges with maintaining things like job benefits.”

Castro says often, these younger, charter-school teachers eventually seek out employment at traditional public schools that offer more opportunities for career advancement. But since those teaching jobs require a higher skill level, they’re often stuck in the charter sector. Castro says this leads to market segmentation among teaching jobs, creating a primary labor market for traditional public school teachers and a secondary one for charter school teachers.

According to a 2019 ProPublica investigation, Teach for America was incentivized to place more teachers in charter schools than traditional public schools through funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which is run by the family who started WalMart.

Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a professor of educational leadership at VCU, says charter schools can also further segment student groups, exacerbating racial segregation.

“The charter school sector is more segregated than our already segregated traditional public school sector,” Siegel-Hawley said. “I don’t think those findings are in dispute.”

Patrick Henry’s student enrollment is 39% white, while the district overall enrolls only 21% white students. Blackwell Elementary, the zoned school for the neighborhood surrounding Patrick Henry, is only 2.5% white.

Siegel-Hawley says Patrick Henry is “a concrete example of the way charter schools can exacerbate segregation, both for the students in the school and for the surrounding regular public schools.”

Charter schools privilege families who are more knowledgeable about school lottery systems, which are different than the enrollment process into zoned, traditional public schools. Not to mention excluding families who don't have access to a private vehicle, or who may not have time to transport their children to school. “It's not really a school of choice if you don't know about it,” Siegel-Hawley says, and “it's not a choice if you can’t get to it.”

She adds that even though by law in Virginia, charter schools have to operate with a lottery system for admission, “there are still ways that the schools can choose the students rather than the other way around. For instance, Patrick Henry continues to have a parental involvement requirement, and they require 24 hours of parental involvement per year. That's a lot. That's a barrier.”

Why does Virginia currently have fewer charter schools than most other states?

There are only seven charter schools in Virginia. According to the VDOE, several were actually proposed and started by local school boards themselves to serve the needs of a unique student population within these school districts.

Most experts agree that the current authorization process largely explains why there are so few charter schools in the state. Local school boards have the sole authority to approve charter schools to operate in their district.

“It’s like asking McDonald’s to decide whether or not they want Five Guys to open up. It’s never going to happen,” says Rotherham, who also served on the state board of education between 2005 and 2009. At the time, he says there wasn’t a lot of interest in “changing the status quo.”

In fact, Network for Public Education Executive Director Carol Burris says Virginia is one of only two states (Kansas being the other) that gives local public school districts the sole authority to authorize charter schools. Wyoming used to have the same law but changed it recently, and Maryland law allows the state board of education to overturn the decisions of local school boards.

“There has been a push to take the control of charter schools away from school districts and elected officials of communities and put it in the hands of private groups,” Burris says. “And very often, the charter schools now - in growing numbers - are being run by large corporations, either nonprofit or for-profit, with a growing sector in for-profit.”

Jeff Bryant, chief correspondent for the independent news organization Our Schools, has reported on that expansion in other states like nearby West Virginia. Lawmakers there recently approved legislation to expand charter schools and now a for-profit management company called Accel is running some.

“It makes money off of its schools through various schemes,” Bryant said. “I think that right away, that should be a red flag to Virginians if they open up their state to charters and the first person knocking on the doors is a group like Accel.”

Burris’ organization released a 2021 report chronicling the rise of for-profit charter school management companies. These companies contract with school operators to run supposedly non-profit charter schools, often enrolling fewer students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

“Comparing the five cities with the most for-profit charter schools (by the proportion of students attending these schools) revealed that in all but one city—Detroit—for-profit run charters served far fewer students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch,” the report says.

How do lawmakers want to expand charter schools in Virginia?

Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) has introduced legislation that would allow the Virginia Board of Education to also approve charter schools to open, in addition to local school boards.

“Regardless of the district, education was the one thing Republicans heard about all across the commonwealth during the election,” Davis said in a recent press conference outlining House Republican priorities. “We also heard our parents when they said they wanted new options for the students.”

Another proposal, which according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch is backed by Youngkin, would allow the Virginia Board of Education to approve “regional charter school divisions.”.

Shane Riddle, government relations director for the Virginia Education Association, says VEA isn’t totally opposed to charter schools. But they’re worried about what charter school authorization in the hands of a board that’s appointed by Virginia’s governor could mean.

“The state board of education really has no accountability to voters or residents of any particular community or locality,” Riddle said. “And I don't think the state is in the position to make that determination for a locality [about whether or not to authorize charter schools].”

The state board is currently occupied by all Democratic nominees, but its partisan make-up won’t shift overnight once Youngkin is inaugurated. Youngkin will make two appointments to the board this June and three appointments the following June at which point the majority of members on the nine-person board will be Youngkin appointees.

Riddle is also worried that a change to Virginia’s charter school law could lessen accountability for charter schools and decrease protections for staff and students. He wants to ensure charter school board meetings remain open to the public, that their records remain publicly accessible and that for-profit operations are prohibited.

“Charter schools must be authorized and held accountable by the local school board as only a local, democratically accountable authorizing entity can ensure that a charter is actually needed to meet student needs,” Riddle said.

Riddle and many Democratic lawmakers also worry about a potential influx of charter schools competing with traditional public schools for funding.

“School systems are organizations that have to have economies of scale, because they have things like the bus system, they have their building that has costs, they have a faculty. They have grounds and maintenance. And that's not subject to per-pupil cost,” Bryant says. “A school can lose 10% of their students to a voucher program or a charter, and then, therefore, lose 10% of its revenue. But its costs do not go down 10%.”

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.