Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) has introduced a constitutional amendment to add approving charter schools to the Virginia Board of Education’s powers.
“We’ve seen a huge number of parents move their children to private or homeschooling environments, and the only people who can’t take advantage of it are the people who can’t afford it. And I just don’t think that we ought to be depriving Virginians of a high-quality education either because they can’t afford it or because of the zip code we’re in,” Obenshain told The Virginia Star.
“Charter schools are public schools, and they simply have additional flexibility in terms of their administration and their curriculum,” Obenshain said.
The bill is identical to legislation that nearly made it to a referendum in 2016, but was defeated when two Republican senators voted “Nay,” joining Democrats who were then in the minority.
“Hope springs eternal,” Obenshain said.
Virginia law requires constitutional amendments to pass out of the General Assembly in two consecutive years with a House election held in between; that would then send the amendment to a voter referendum.
As a result, legislators who want to pass a constitutional amendment need to introduce it for the first time this year, and Obenshain isn’t alone in seeking an amendment.
Still, it’s not a great year to try to pass controversial legislation; Republicans control the House of Delegates, but Democrats control the Senate, where Senator-elect Aaron Rouse strengthens the majority, 22 to 18. Additionally, of the two Republican senators who voted against the bill in 2016 after voting for it in 2015, one is still in office.
Senator Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta) said Friday he hasn’t had a chance to review the legislation yet and was unable to say how he would vote on it this year, but said that he doesn’t always align with his caucus on school choice legislation. He may not get a chance to vote on the bill at all; it must first pass out of the Democrat-controlled Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.
In 2016, Senate Democrats argued that the amendment would undermine local school board authority according to The Washington Post. Constitutionally, local school boards can authorize charter schools in Virginia, but few have.
“Our experience has been that local school board have, at least historically, been universally hostile to the suggestion that there’s another way to do it,” Obenshain said.
He said that discourages charter school organizers from making an effort to get them approved locally.
The National Education Association, a teacher’s union, says charter schools take funding away from the school district and send them to more exclusive, potentially for-profit schools.
“Charter schools drain funds from neighborhood public schools and magnet schools that serve the vast majority of our students,” the NEA states on its site, adding that the schools often aren’t held to the same standards as public schools.
“Charter schools are historically most utilized to assist and raise the quality of education in largely minority areas,” Obenshain said. “They often are the areas that are most in need of a lifeline being dropped to the parents and families.”
He said he’s been an advocate for charter schools for 20 years and that constituents in his district won’t be the primary beneficiaries of a charter school amendment.
“The school divisions in places like Norfolk and Petersburg, for example, they’re in desperate need of help, of charter schools or other alternatives that are going to offer incentives to the existing public schools to examine other ways to meet the demands and rigors that are necessary in order to provide a world-class education to their children,” he said.
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