On Monday, the Virginia Senate rejected by one vote a proposed constitutional amendment to make public charter school approval easier, even though it passed a resolution with the exact same language earlier in session. But on Tuesday, the House of Delegates approved the bill that earlier passed the Senate, SJ 256, patroned by Senator Mark Obenshain (R-26, Harrisonburg), on a vote of 58-42 - and all it takes is for one resolution to clear both chambers in the exact same language. Appropriately, Delegate Rob Bell (R-58, Albemarle), who patroned the House resolution, managed the Senate version on the House floor yesterday. Because this is a constitutional amendment, it does not go to the Governor for signature or veto.
SJ 256 will allow charter school applicants to apply to the State Board of Education for approval of their proposed charter schools, instead of local school districts that have steadfastly guarded the status quo rather than face competition. The fox truly guards the hen house here: Out of the 6,400 public charter schools in America, Virginia has less than 10.
The Center for Education Reform in 2013 gave Virginia an F for its restrictive and overly burdensome 17-year-old law and paltry number of public charter schools. Virginia is ranked 40 out of the 42 states that have such laws. While charters flourish in states as red as Texas and blue as Massachusetts, creating competition and improving public education, Virginia has fallen far behind. Currently, thousands of families are trapped in failing public schools with no choices unless they can afford to move to affluent ZIP Codes or pay for private schools.
While making approval easier, though by no means guaranteed, seems like a logical vote, the education establishment used every scare tactic in its arsenal and nearly won. Committee and floor votes came down to the wire, even in the largely conservative House. SJ 256 passed each chamber's Privileges and Elections Committee by one vote and got the minimum 21 votes on the Senate floor required of constitutional amendments. Today, 12 Republicans voted against it while one Democrat and one independent voted for it.
Now, SJ 256 must pass both chambers in the exact same language again during next year's session before it can go to the voters in November 2016. Expect another hard fought legislative battle next year since the education establishment knows how popular public charter schools are and, once on the ballot, will get ratified easily.