The General Assembly is working on a Constitutional Amendment (SJ 256) that would change the way charter schools are established in Virginia.

Schools today are decided upon and approved by each school district. All Albemarle County schools were approved by the Albemarle County School Board. As a result of this, many districts in the Commonwealth of Virginia have been resistant to approving charter schools.

Thus far, we only have seven schools throughout the entire state. The Constitutional amendment would also grant authority to the state Board of Education to create charter schools within school divisions.

How does that compare with other states?

Principal Ashby Kindler of Murray High School, an Albemarle public charter school, says that “some states have fifty to five hundred charters…the city of New Orleans is almost entirely charter.” Where Washington D.C. alone has over 100 charter schools, this shows that our seven schools are insufficient for the demand of an entire state.

This bill has passed round one in both houses of the General Assembly during the 2015 legislative session. However, this bill is far from becoming a law. According to Virginia’s Constitutional amendment process, the bill has to be passed by both the house and senate (as well as the respective sub-committees and committees) twice before going to the general public’s ballots.

Utilizing a state constitutional amendment allows the General Assembly to vote on the bill, but also gives the general public a say in the matter due to the public vote that is required to ratify the amendment. Since this bill has passed this year, it automatically is put on the 2016 legislative agenda, to go through the whole process again.

Then, if it passes the General Assembly, in November of 2016, this bill will show up on voter’s ballots, along with the candidates for the next President. This bill could help provide schools to those who are struggling in a public school setting, and by passing this bill, Virginia can give the help those students need.

The need is simple: Virginia needs more than just seven charter schools. Virginia currently has 8.3 million people within its borders.

Let’s look at a few numbers.

According to a 2014 charter school survey, the length of the average waiting list to go to a charter school is about 277 students. So, if all seven of our schools have waiting lists that long then that would be 1,939 students waiting to join a charter school. It’s not because the schools are selective, but it’s because with their goals of maintaining small classrooms, they simply do not have enough room to meet the needs of every student.

Now, let’s say that out of our entire population, one out of every five children in our state is failing in our public school system, and feels they would benefit from a charter school. That would be a demand of 376,348 students in need of a charter school. Seven schools cannot possibly meet that demand.

“This is a very curious bill,” said Dr. Billy Haun chief academic officer of Virginia. “It’s always been according to the districts, and it’s very interesting to give the General Assembly the power to change the districts.”

This will not change any of the district’s funding methods, Dr. Haun explains. “Charter schools are funded for by the same method as public schools… their budgets are funded for the same way at the same rates.”

“Charters are a public school, and the concept is that the dollars should follow the child and not the school,” added Kindler.

Charter schools are not meant to replace failing public schools, but to give an option to students who are struggling in the tight leashed system that is a public county school.

Charter schools are community of students working with their teachers to weekly if not daily improve their quality of education. They optimize small class sizes of students who are not only working hard to master the material, but are enjoying the mastery process.

“I’ve been here since the school opened and I can tell you what the superintendent said to us. He said, ‘don’t make any excuses – I want you guys to make this the best school on the planet,’” said Ms. Wellen, an English Teacher at Murray High School.

Murray functions as a Glasser quality school, where they utilize choice theory – everything that a student or teacher does or responds to is done out of choice.

“For mastery learning, basically at Murray you’re not allowed to get anything below a B, if it’s not then it’s considered NMY (Not Mastered Yet) and you get to redo the assignment or test until you get it,” explains Noah, a student at Murray High School.

The school focuses more on whether or not the student is mastering the material, rather than focusing on getting all the material covered before the SOL.

From a visit to Murray High School, we experienced different forms of student engagement, such as their weekly meeting in the gymnasium. 

As Rian Slate, former student at Murray, explains, “Every Friday we had something called a community meeting which meant we gathered in the gym and all talked about what had happened that week.”  Students and staff meet together and discuss upcoming events, issues with behavior, and open up the room for discussion for students to brainstorm how they can make Murray a better school the next week.

During our visit, their community meeting ended with a game of “Mission Impossible” where four teams of both students and teachers worked together to steal balls from the other teams. 

A higher percentage of students in a charter classroom have a better chance of developing closer relationships with a teacher than a public classroom. Students voices are equally heard and respected as teachers’ voices within the school walls, and with the passage of the bill, even more student voices can be heard.

That remains to be seen at the voting booths in November of 2016.

For more information on the statistics of charter schools, check out this online resource.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Heather Walton, Quinton Miller, Seth Moya, Clay Lawson and Yao Lind are Seniors at Monticello High School

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