Chartered Course 

University-run charter schools? Amid the fighting, Mayor Wilder's proposal just might be good for the city school system.

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Few people were surprised when in the small conference room on Main Street Jan. 20 Mayor L. Douglas Wilder expedited plans for two new charter schools at the expense of sorely needed elementary and middle schools.

Wilder's focus on education, specifically the building of new schools, has been summarily lost in the recent bickering between his administration and the Richmond School Board. Again last week, City Council members reiterated that time was running out for Wilder to introduce his first round of City of the Future projects.

To date, the only "schools" left in the mayor's plans are the two charter schools — one that would focus on vocational training and technology, the other on math and sciences.

Charter schools operate on a contract with a local school system or some other government agency and are free from the typical bureaucracy of public schools. This allows the schools to develop specialized curriculums, and they're often held to higher accountability standards.

It's unclear who would operate the mayor's proposed charter schools. But there have been hints along the way.

During Wilder's "State of the City" address, Virginia Commonwealth University President Eugene Trani sat up front while Wilder scolded the School Board, then proceeded to evaluate the educational success of Richmond schools with a Trani-approved measuring stick: Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover counties, Wilder told the crowd, each has a single high school that sends more freshmen to VCU than does the entire city school system. There was no mention of city students at University of Richmond, Virginia Union or, for that matter, J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.

"Why am I so passionate about this? I was in a school system that made us use outdoor toilets," Wilder explained, eliciting nervous chuckles. "Something is missing."

Indeed, much is missing. Detailed plans for the charter schools — or anything else affiliated with the broader City of the Future plan Wilder announced 13 months ago — have yet to be introduced to the School Board or City Council.

Whether the charter schools are still on the table is anyone's guess, says George Braxton, chairman of the Richmond School Board. He met with the mayor in late January and inquired about the plans, but says Wilder told him that none existed.

"Who is the group? Is there going to be a group or an individual or a company that's going to bring forth the work, to come before the board?" Braxton recalls asking Wilder point-blank. "He told me there was not."

Wilder spokesman Linwood Norman says plans for who would sponsor and operate the schools haven't progressed that far. Is VCU involved? VCU spokeswoman Pam Lepley says the university is "talking" with the city administration about contributing to a math and sciences charter school, but hasn't made an official proposal.

Interestingly, though, a bill before the General Assembly would allow universities to establish charter or "laboratory" schools that would bypass local school boards. William C. Bosher Jr., a professor at the VCU School of Education who serves on the mayor's education committee supports the legislation. Bosher says the university has no "official position" on charter schools, but he hopes the city and VCU can work together. "A wonderful coalition would be the school board, the mayor's office and the university," he says.

John Moeser, an urban studies professor and visiting fellow at UR, says VCU's interest in charter schools could be a blessing. In the absence of real educational reform by the School Board, he says, charter schools that attract students of different economic backgrounds would be an important step. Research suggests that a school in which the student population is mixed on the basis of income greatly increases the test scores of at-risk students.

"Because of the city/county separation and frankly because of the political resistance, there's no way our schools are going to be consolidated," Moeser says of metro Richmond. "The value of a school that is developed by the university would be [that] if it's set up this way, it would be integrated along income lines.

Across the country, university-run charter schools have an excellent track record, says Robin J. Lake, executive director of the National Charter School Research Project at the University of Washington in Seattle.

"There's a lot of experimentation," says Lake, adding that several states have passed laws that allow charter schools to bypass local government, including local school boards. "If you want innovative schools, to shake things up a bit … states have opened it up to lots of different agencies."

Often, the decision to allow charter schools to bypass local school boards is the only way to lure that innovation, Lake says. "It's more common for school districts to see charter schools as competitors," she says.

In Virginia, local school boards must approve charter schools, a sticking point that has held up the current legislation. It's also etched in the state constitution. "Let's say that legislation passed: Under the local school board system, you're still going to have to deal with this issue," Bosher says. "[The bill] is stalled over the constitutional issues."

There is also the long-held concern that charter schools take resources away from public schools. While the money is there, Wilder's political hardball is rooted in this fear: Not long after promising to pull elementary schools from his City of the Future plan, he was replacing them with charter schools.

Quietly, School Board members say charter schools simply shouldn't be the city's top priority when so many secondary schools are falling apart.

What's more, the city offers as many advanced classes and programs for its students as do the county school systems. In Richmond, 9,450 students are enrolled in advanced classes. In Henrico County, 16,255 students are enrolled in gifted and advanced classes. While there is some duplication — the same students enrolled in different classes — the numbers are impressive when you consider Richmond has a student poplulation of 25,054; Henrico 47,868.

The mayor is expected to announce his first round of projects sometime during the next three weeks, which will put to rest much of the speculation. Meanwhile, the legislation that would allow universities to establish charter schools and bypass local school boards sits stalled in committee. The mayor initially said the charter school proposals would be presented to the School Board, but said last week the charter schools would be operated independently.

Braxton, the School Board chairman, says he expects any proposals to come before the School Board.

"I think there is definitely room for improvement in our vocational training, and we'd like to see what our business partners and community partners can offer," he says. "We'd definitely like to know if it meets a need in our school system, and if it does, we'd be excited to embrace it." S

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