Finding the future in the past

3/4/2017, 11:14 a.m.
This is a proud moment in Virginia history. It is a rare occasion when a state legislature passes two bills ...

The Virginia General Assembly has taken an important step. For the first time, it has approved bills to expand public charter schools that will address the poor performance predominantly of students from low-income households.

The issue has now landed on the desk of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and he should sign the bill.

The effectiveness of quality charter schools is what has led black leaders across the country, from Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, Ca., to United Negro College Fund CEO Michael Lomax to advocate for charters.

And with good reason. Charter schools are immensely popular among black families. According to a national public opinion survey of parents of school-age children, 82 percent of black parents believe that all parents should have the ability to choose their child’s public school, regardless of where they live.

In just the past five years, black student enrollment in charter schools has grown by 200,000. Black students now account for 27 percent of charter school enrollment versus just 16 percent of traditional district school enrollment.

Black Virginians are no different. In a poll conducted last year by the respected Alexandria-based Republican strategic research and polling firm Tarrance Group, 67 percent of black respondents favored more charter schools. More importantly, they favored important elements not found in public schools. Ninety-five percent favor requiring more parental involvement; 90 percent favor giving schools more freedom to hire the best teachers and 81 percent favor rewarding high quality teachers with higher pay.

There is a reason for enthusiastic support in the black community around the country. Parents see for themselves how their children are flourishing in charter schools. According to the most thorough and respected study of charter school results, conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, black students learn more when they attend charter schools. Black students in charter schools gained the equivalent of 14 extra days of learning in reading and 14 extra days of learning in math per year compared with their black peers in traditional district schools.

For black students from low-income households attending charter schools, the learning gains were even more dramatic — the equivalent of 29 extra learning days in reading and 36 extra learning days in math.

Just 93 miles away in our nation’s capital, where public school enrollment and the student demographic profile is similar to Richmond, Petersburg, Norfolk and Portsmouth, parents are choosing public charter schools. In fact, charters are the fastest growing public school option for D.C. parents.

Black children in Virginia would benefit from such effective schools. Fifty-five percent of unaccredited schools in Virginia are in predominantly low-income black communities. Some schools in those communities have been unaccredited for up to 11 years.

But black parents here in Virginia are not given any other options. Children have only one choice — a one-size-fits-all option that often fails to meet the needs of children. In the words of charter school founder Sean “Diddy” Combs, “We have to prepare our kids for the realities of what’s out there.”

The National Urban League historically has advocated for education equity and high-quality public school options. In recent years, it has played a key role in starting successful charter schools. As a Virginia member, nothing would make me prouder than to play a similar role here.

But successful charter school operators simply will not come to Virginia. Here, they do not have the right to manage their own schools. Local school boards have proven downright inhospitable or hostile and, when they have approved what they call a “charter school,” it is often without the flexibility to best help an underserved population.

More than 6,000 charter schools today serve nearly 3 million students, more than a million of whom are children of color. Virginia has a total of nine charter schools, and its ability to help the children who need it most is sorely limited.

By signing the charter school bill, Gov. McAuliffe would open a new door to underserved children, a door that would help )black students who deserve a better opportunity.

The writer is a former president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters.