Make Every School A Charter School

Published 4:30 pm Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Moton Museum has won a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to lead a regional discussion on the potential for public charter school education in Southside Virginia.

The conversation is worth having. Charter schools have sometimes been viewed as threats to public schools and public education but they are, in fact, public schools, themselves.

Charter schools in Virginia are public schools that provide high-quality educational options for parents and students, while providing communities and educators, alike, the flexibility to create alternative and innovative curriculums. Applications to create a charter school must be approved by local school boards and are subject to a tenacious review process. Local school systems, crucially, retain control over the schools once those schools are opened.

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They are, again, public schools, not private schools.

If one or more charter schools are established in the region they must, of course, provide excellence within their own classrooms while also seeking to lift the level of educational achievement in all public schools within that jurisdiction. They can do that by sharing new educational techniques and curriculum enhancement and through the simple element of competition. A healthy response to a charter school is for all the other public schools in the community, or area, to raise their game.

And, it goes without saying, but let's say it, any public charter school must be accessible to all students.

Until now, the focus of public charter schools has seemed limited to urban schools, which have so many more resources and public schools to potentially convert into charter schools, where parents could seek enrollment for their child. Nor have they been a prominent feature of even the urban landscape in Virginia. There are approximately 4,600 charter schools in the nation and, as of this summer, only three of them were in Virginia.

When he signed House Bill 1390 and Senate Bill 737 in June, Governor Bob McDonnell said, “A child's educational opportunities should be determined by her intellect and work ethic, not her zip code. That is what our successful 'Opportunity To Learn' education reform agenda was all about, expanding opportunities for students to learn in the environments that suit them best. One way we can bring more opportunities to our young people, especially at-risk students, is through the expansion of high quality charter schools, and that is why I am so pleased to sign this legislation today.”

The support in Virginia has been bipartisan. Democratic House of Delegates member, Rosalyn Dance, was chief co-patron of House Bill 1390 and she also chairs the state's Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship Committee. “All children deserve a first class education,” she said at the bill signing with Gov. McDonnell. “While the number of unaccredited schools in Virginia has decreased, we should never tolerate the status quo when it comes to demanding excellence for all of Virginia's children, regardless of where they live. I am pleased that we have aligned ourselves with President Obama's nationwide movement to increase charter schools and implement true education reform. The legislation signed today will result in more quality charter schools in Virginia and provide challenging, innovative and quality learning environments for our young people.”

The Moton Museum's director, Lacy Ward, sees the museum's role as catalyst for this regional charter school discussion as a natural fit for the museum's mission, and the educational history which made the former Robert Russa Moton High School so worthy of becoming a museum and a National Historic Landmark. The building is a museum because black students at the school went on strike on April 23, 1951 against separate and unequal facilities for African-Americans. Their families then decided to mount a legal challenge against segregated schools in the U.S. and that legal action became part of the Supreme Court's historic Brown decision in 1954.

Mr. Ward told The Herald the museum's leadership in the charter discussion “is very much in keeping” with its history and mission. Moton's history is all about “educational opportunities, and there are still barriers to educational opportunity,” Mr. Ward noted.

Leading the discussion on how charter schools can help elevate achievement within a rural public school system, Mr. Ward believes, is being “true to the history…and being true to the pioneers” who began shaping history at R. R. Moton High School on that spring day 59 years ago.

Doing so, would weave the tapestry of Moton's history into contemporary policy discussion. After the General Assembly passed the Charter School legislation, it became apparent to the museum's leadership that a “sea change” was coming, Mr. Ward told us, “that may affect the way education is delivered in rural Southside Virginia…We decided that, given our history, we should be actively participating.”

If a sea change is indeed coming then the community, in concert with legislators and policymakers in Richmond, should determine to see that tide raise the level of educational opportunity and achievement in all public schools.

Gov. McDonnell has described Charter schools as “public schools with the freedom to innovate in educating and preparing students for the workforce.”

Unquestionably, the best outcome would for all public schools in our region, and their teachers, to be given the resources and freedom by the commonwealth to innovate rather than feeling constrained to teaching to a set of rigid standards.

Stifle creativity and innovation and, inevitably, you stifle education in the deepest and truest sense of the word.

All of our schools and teachers should have the resources and freedom to take children beyond connecting the dots in pre-determined standards of learning and comprehend the bigger picture, becoming their own masterpiece, themselves.

Grant a charter for that.