How far can Youngkin’s school choice push go?

Education has been the number one priority for Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, both during the election campaign and as he prepares for his transition to Executive Mansion in Richmond.

Youngkin has pledged to raise teacher salaries and rebuild crumbling facilities, keep schools open throughout the ongoing pandemic, and eradicate “critical race theory” from the classroom.

Budgets come and go, pandemics (hopefully) don’t last forever, and culture wars over school curricula have raged for decades.

But it is Youngkin’s school choice curriculum that could fundamentally change Virginia’s education system.

‘School choice’ can refer to a range of educational options, including charter schools, voucher programs that use public money to help families pay off private school and school savings accounts. , where families can remove their child from public school and use the per-pupil funding to pay for other educational opportunities.

Youngkin has been light on specific policy proposals, but the governor-elect has always preached school choice during the election campaign. He has promised Virginians at least 20 additional charter schools as a “Day One” priority and family vouchers to help their children recover from the school year shutdown.

These types of promises may not have gained much traction in recent years, but massive frustration with the state’s public schools after a year of COVID-19 shutdown and enough moderate Democrats could provide Youngkin with a way to keep his campaign promises.

Of the. Glenn Davis, R-Viginia Beach, chats with colleagues on the floor of the House of Delegates. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

“If people paid attention to this last election, they will understand that there are communities that have been left behind,” Del said. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, who has just been named president of the House Education Committee by the incoming majority of the GOP. “I think people on both sides of the aisle have heard this. We have an elected governor who has championed the choice of school, who believes in it and who will lead it. ”

Charter schools

Youngkin’s promise to create 20 new charter schools would almost quadruple the number of charters currently in the Commonwealth.

Charter schools are publicly funded and licensed by locally elected school boards. While held accountable for the performance standards set out in their charter agreements, charter schools have greater autonomy in curriculum and teaching models.

Virginia technically allows charter schools, but only seven are currently open, with 1,302 students, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

Charter advocates say the low numbers are due to local school boards having the final say on whether or not to open a charter school.

“It makes it almost impossible to found one,” said Senator Chap Petersen of the Town of D-Fairfax.

That’s why lawmakers like Petersen are aiming for a more fundamental policy change than just opening 20 new schools. Petersen and others want to expand the licensing process so that local school boards don’t have exclusive control over opening a new charter school.

State Senator Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City.

Under current state law, there is no appeal process to a higher authority if a local school board denies a charter application. Charters that are rejected can ask the local school board to reconsider, but once the board has reconsidered and rendered a verdict, its decision is final.

Asking school boards to be gatekeepers to their potential competitors ensures that charters don’t have a fair chance, Davis said.

“It’s not the only thing. The Virginia code presents some challenges that make it difficult for charter schools to be successful here, ”said Davis. “But at the end of the day, if school systems don’t even consider charter applications, then this whole system is dead in the water.”

There are several policy proposals that could change the authorization process, according to lawmakers. Lawmakers could require boards of directors to approve charters if they meet certain criteria, allow refused charters to appeal to the state, or create an easier way for traditional public schools to convert to charters. .

The Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest professional organization for teachers, is not categorically opposed to charter schools, but wants the authority to stay with local school boards, the spokesperson for VEA, Shane Riddle. Riddle said the rule ensures charter schools work hand-in-hand with the local council to support the school district’s mission to educate all children.

“We’re not totally against charter schools, depending on how they’re structured and who they’re aimed at. As long as there are equity structures to ensure that all students have the opportunity to attend, ”said Riddle. “We want to make sure that if a charter school is authorized, the only authorizer is the local school division. “

Allies across the aisle

In 2019, Davis filed legislation that would have created a process for certain charters that are refused by local councils to appeal to the state Board of Education. This bill died in a vote in the House, but this go-around Davis believes similar legislation stands a chance.

Some key Democrats in the Senate agree with him.

While Republicans hold the House and governor, Democrats tightly control the Senate, with a 21-19 majority. Incoming Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears chairs the Senate and votes to break the tie, so Democrats can’t spare a single vote if they want to block GOP legislation.

This dynamic gives moderate Senate Democrats like Petersen and Senator Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, inordinate influence. The two have sided with the Republicans on education issues like reopening schools, and the duo are essential for Youngkin’s education agenda to become a legislative reality.

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Both lawmakers support expanding the charter authorization process.

Petersen said he was at a Chamber of Commerce event recently, and as he heard speakers praise Virginia’s education system, the disconnect between frustrated families and some state officials was stark.

“I was like, does anyone know that the schools were closed for a year, that we had 50,000 students who dropped out of the system? Said Petersen.

Petersen said a growing number of Democratic lawmakers were uncomfortable defending the status quo.

“I can only speak for myself, but you can group Democrats into two groups: one is (saying) ‘Nothing to do here, come on,” “said Petersen. “The other says that what we have seen over the past two years is a little unsettling and that we need to restore confidence in our public schools. We have had too many people who have dropped out, too many families who have left the school system.

Morrissey has also distanced himself from other Democrats on the issue of school choice.

“Most Democrats are content to line up behind public schools. What public schools want, boom, they get, ”Morrissey said. “I am very much in favor of public schools. But that does not mean, however, that there is no place for charter schools. … Competition makes individuals, businesses, school boards, school districts and schools themselves better.

Senator Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond. (Photo by Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

While that message may resonate with Democratic wild cards like Petersen and Morrisey, key constituencies are not on board.

“Currently, Virginia is ranked fourth for academic results in the US News & World Report. Our public schools are doing a great job, ”said Riddle. “When you talk about competition, you are talking about private industry. Why do you want competition when a state is fourth in the country in terms of educational outcomes? “

Education savings accounts

Lawmakers seeking to open the door in Virginia to education savings accounts and voucher programs received major support from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2020.

A long-standing ban on using public money for religious education, known as the Blaine Amendment, was declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court last year. Virginia is one of 37 states with a Blaine Amendment to the State Constitution, stating that public money cannot go to religious schools.

In July 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the application of the Blaine Amendment violated the free exercise clause of the United States Constitution. A group of Montana mothers had sued the state over a tax credit scholarship program that did not allow recipients to use scholarships at schools affiliated with a religion.

The ruling doesn’t mean Virginia should start sharing taxpayer money with religious schools, but religious schools are now potential beneficiaries if lawmakers allow parents to use education savings accounts, which have failed. go through the state legislature in recent years.

The Supreme Court ruling states: “A state does not need to subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools just because they are religious.

Education savings accounts operate on the premise that parents should have access to public funds that finance a child’s education. While there are a variety of ESA programs in eight states where they are currently legal, the general idea is that a parent can take their child out of public school and then use some or all of the per student funding. for various educational expenses, including private school.

In 2016, Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed a school choice bill that would have created education savings accounts on the grounds that it could violate the language of the Blaine State Amendment. In 2017, as Lieutenant Governor, Governor Ralph Northam cast the decisive vote in the Senate to repeal legislation that would have created education savings accounts.

Republican lawmakers know that ESAs and the good guys are less likely to go through a Democratic-controlled Senate education committee. If legislation allowing ESAs succeeds through this session, it will likely be targeted at specific groups who have been historically disadvantaged.

“Maybe ESAs for poor children, for children with special needs, maybe the state can cap the number of people who can qualify, or just have it for overcrowded schools, or do it by so school boards have to register, ”a lobbyist familiar with the debate but not authorized to comment on that said. “These are the conversations that take place, and it comes down to what can go through the Senate. ”