richmond school board member keith west

More Delay In Virginia's Only Elementary Charter School

Since Virginia has so few charter schools, it was heartening to see the Richmond City School Board, after much political back-and-forth and demagoguery, approve the Patrick Henry Elementary School of Science and Arts. Even then it took three attempts to get a contract signed by the board and the Patrick Henry Initiative, the first two containing set-ups for failure by opponents within the school administration (who developed the contracts). After a reasonable contract was developed by board member Keith West, offered by the board and accepted by PHI, there was good reason for a semblance of optimism among education reformers. The sooner it gets started and, hopefully, is a success, the sooner more charter schools might emerge and, perhaps, finally, the General Assembly will loosen its limitations and obstacles to starting more such education options. It is not a point of Virginia pride that, after years of successful charter schools around the country, this is Virginia's first elementary charter school.

Alas, word came down Friday that PHI will need another year to get ready to open (see Richmond Times-Dispatch, here). The wrangling over the contract set its timeline too far back and it was concerned about rushing to open rather than preparing to educate properly. The due dilligence is welcome, but it doesn't soften the blow of expectations.

We continue to wish PHI the best of luck. We look forward to its success and hope it will become a beacon of emulation across Virginia.

Great News On School Choice: Virginia's First Charter Elementary School Approved . . . For Now

Congratulations Richmond School Board! You did the right thing and you have our thanks. Last night, after months of wrangling, controversy and approval — only to turn down a flawed contract contrived by the school administration — the board approved by a vote of 5-0 a new, and fair, contract for the Patrick Henry Initiative charter elementary school. The charter elementary school, the first one in Virginia, will emphasize art and science and will be open to all Richmond city elementary school-age students, who must apply for admittance.

Congratulations to Richmond school board member Keith West who carried this to fruition against the greatest of odds and through much travail — he's often outvoted 8-1 — even to the extent of risking no charter school when he killed the first contract because it was a set up for the PHI to fail and thus discredit school choice. But he came back with a new contract and worked with the other board members who conscientiously did the right thing. (West, an education reform and choice advocate, and The Family Foundation, are members of the education reform coalition School Choice Virginia.)

There is one catch to this great news, however, and a big one at that. Notice the vote. Only five of the nine school board members voted. One member was absent, but the other three, who are for the status quo (as if that's working), walked out. (See Richmond Times-Dispatch article here.) Of the five who voted in favor, only two are seeking re-election this November. The next school board could very well vote to cancel the contract — and don't underestimate the power of the teachers union and educrat establishment to protect their monopolistic turf. We'll cross that bridge when we get there.  

In the meantime, we hope the momentum gained from this approval will lead to two things: More charter schools in the commonwealth, now that that other education reformers in Virginia see it is possible. We also hope the General Assembly, in its next session, will update the code of Virginia to allow for an easier, less bureaucratic, less red-tape and less hoop-jumping application process for interested parties willing to create charter schools. These parents and organizations are willing to put themselves under public scrutiny and accountability — something sorely lacking in the teachers union and in many school district central offices — in order to improve educational choice opportunities, competition and excellent education for our children. While they're at it, maybe it can require some of that accountability among the public school educrat establishment.

Update: Charter Elementary School To Get Second Life?

That it is more difficult to get a vote on a realistic contract for a charter school in Virginia than extracting crude oil from a banana, as happened in Richmond last week, is proof enough that the issue must be revisited by the General Assembly soon. As we commented on last week, Virginia still has no charter elementary school, although Richmond was on the verge of getting one after its school board approved the Patrick Henry Initiative last spring. All that was left to do was for the school board to approve a contract with PHI. However, the the Richmond Public Schools administration sabotaged the deal by drawing up contract terms so restrictive that it was destined to condemn the school to failure.  Now, Richmond School Board member Keith West, who voted against the contract because of its untenable conditions, will bring the issue back for reconsideration. West, a founder of School Choice Virginia, can do so as one who voted on the prevailing side of the question. As reported in the Richmond Times-Dispatch Saturday, West will offer a simpler contract, outlining "what needs to be done, not how to do it."

Of course, telling a charter school how to do its mission defeats the purpose of charter schools — which is to offer alternative methods of instruction rather than the status quo offered by the educrat establishment, that same expertise that has failed so many, especially in urban communities.

While the chances for rescuing PHI aren't great, they are still alive. Overwhelming parent and citizen involvement got the effort this far and may yet finish the mission. They will need all the wherewithal they can summon to do so. West's new proposal first will be sent to a committee by School Board Chairman George Braxton, if it's not killed outright by the board. Plus, Braxton and another previous yes vote, Vice Chairman Lisa Dawson, hinted they would vote no on West's new contract anyway.

What kind of message does scuttling a first-ever charter elementary school send the rest of the state? It should send one to the General Assembly that this alleged system of educational choice must be revisited now, because although it is ostensibly set up for change, it really protects the same old torn up, infertile  turf of the educrat establishment, not the interests of parents, students and new ideas to advance education.

School Choice Now Has A Voice In Virgnia

We will have more on this later, but yesterday we were part of an announcement by Delegate Chris Saxman (R-20, Staunton) that introduced School Choice Virginia, a new 501(c)(4) organization, to lobby on school choice issues. It cannot support candidates. Virginia severely lacks choices in public education. Suppose your local government drew up shopping districts and you could only shop at the grocery store in your district. Do you think the service, quality and pricing would be competitive and the products of high standard? Of course not. It would be a monopoly. That's the case in Virginia with its public education. Not all public school systems are failing to be sure. But where they are, they are failing dramatically, and the only thing that can help them is competition and reform. (For example, look at difficult it was for Richmond to get its first charter school, despite overwhelming parental approval.) Virginia needs more charter schools (which means a drastic improvement over the current law) and more freedom of enrollment within the existing structure among many other options.

We look forward to serving on School Choice Virginia's board, with organizations and individuals such as the Virginia Catholic Conference, home school leaders, Richmond School Board member and reformer Keith West, an independent, and former District of Columbia City Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, a Democrat, and one of the nation's leading school choice advocates.

While it always is exciting to see momentum growing for an issue, evidenced by the formation a new coalition, School Choice Virginia is no reason to believe education reform is anywhere closer to fruition. The General Assembly climate has not been warm to even modest school choice — Delegate Saxman's bill to create private sector funded scholarships was defeated last year — and this new group will need all the grassroots help it can get.