A bill now in the Virginia House of Delegates, HB 3, would “provide for a referendum at the November 8, 2016, election to approve or reject [a constitutional] amendment to grant the [state] Board of Education the authority to establish charter schools within the school divisions of the Commonwealth, subject to any criteria or conditions that the General Assembly may prescribe.” A parallel bill in the state Senate, SB 588, would do the same.
Either of these bills would allow voters in Virginia to amend the state constitution so as to give the state Board of Education the right to overrule the decisions of local boards of education and force them to accept charter schools in their districts.
The Illinois State Board of Education has a commission at the state level for doing just that: it can overrule the judgments of local boards of education and thus disenfranchise communities of learners. It hasn’t been a happy camp for the people of Illinois.
Just last week, Woodland School District 50 in Chicago’s northern suburbs issued a letter, saying they will continue to protest the Illinois State Charter School Commission’s authority to ignore local voices when making decisions that aren’t in the best interest of students:
The Charter School Commission’s decision to issue a five-year charter renewal to Prairie Crossing was narrowly reached (with four of the nine commissioners opposing renewal), but it has resulted in over $3 million per year being diverted from Woodland to fund the charter school’s operations.
That is why Woodland, in May 2014, filed a lawsuit seeking to reverse the Charter School Commission’s decision. Ten months later, the Circuit Court of Cook County agreed with Woodland and ordered that the Charter School Commission’s decision be reversed and Prairie Crossing be closed. We maintain that, in renewing Prairie Crossing’s authority to operate, the Charter School Commission ignored significant portions of the Charter Schools Law…
I fear the same problems would befall the citizens of Virginia if this bill becomes law and the constitution is subject to amendment. A conversation about charter schools is worth having in many communities in Virginia, just as it is in Illinois. But it is a conversation that needs to take place in each community where a charter could potentially be built and based on the merits of the organization that is applying for a charter.
Illinois’s charter school commission has for years squelched, by force of law, the voices of local communities. The people effectively have no say in how the state’s appointed charter school commission spends the public’s tax dollars for charter schools. And that means the people have less say in how their public schools are run, since the charter schools draw money away from the public schools, despite the will of an elected, or in some cases appointed, school board.
State oversight hasn’t turned out very well for communities in other ways, either. Consider the water in Flint, Michigan, which has been poisoned with lead because of bad decisions made at the state level, decisions that effectively ignored or forcibly steered the voices of local officials, as editorialized here in the New York Times.
If we’ve learned anything in 200-plus years of democracy—the good, the bad, and the ugly—we ought to understand that it’s harmful for governments to suppress the voices of citizens when it comes to running their own communities. As long as the rights of all individuals are protected, the federal and state government should remain silent in local charter school decisions.
We maintain that decisions about charter schools are best made at the local level. The Illinois State Charter School Commission should be abolished, and the people of Virginia should let their voices be heard on this matter of creating short-sighted and ill-advised amendments to the state’s constitution.