Virginia parents have few options when it comes to their child’s education. This situation becomes all too apparent to parents whose children are harmed or threatened at school, and they realize they have no place to turn.
In December, a grandmother in Virginia Beach reported that her granddaughter was bullied at school, and a judge even granted a protective order for the child. Why didn’t this frustrated grandmother just find another school?
Because Virginia has so few learning options. Only seven charter schools, public schools that give parents alternatives to assigned district schools, operate in Virginia. State lawmakers are considering proposals that would empower residents to create more charter schools, but that is cold comfort to students who are having trouble now.
Under state law, only school districts can approve charter schools. But around the country, states allow for independent school boards and colleges and universities to create them. North Carolina has nearly 200 charter schools and South Carolina has 80. Officials in Florida and Arizona have offered flexibility to school creators for decades, and Florida families have more than 670 to choose from. Arizona offers more than 500 charter schools.
But there is even more untapped potential in Virginia. State law allows—conceptually anyway—for universities to create lab schools, which are K-12 schools that operate under the auspices of university oversight. Like charter schools, lab schools would also allow postsecondary leaders and school creators to provide innovative teaching methods to Virginia families.
Florida’s university system operates a variety of lab schools. Officials at Florida State University, Florida A&M, the University of Florida and Florida Atlantic University have all fostered the creation of such schools.
Nearly 40% of students at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, operated through the University of Florida, are eligible for school lunches (an indicator of poverty). Yet despite serving students from disadvantaged backgrounds, U.S. News ranks the school in the top 100 high schools in the state.
Like charter schools, lab schools come in different shapes and sizes. The University of Chicago has operated private lab schools for more than 100 years, while the former hedge-fund analyst Sal Khan—founder of the online Khan Academy—started two private lab schools in California. The lab schools in Florida’s university system are tuition-free public schools.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin recently signed an agreement with 30 universities in Virginia to create lab schools, pledging to use surplus state taxpayer spending to promote the initiative. Fiscal hawks have even less to worry about because taxpayers spend less on charter schools than they do on district schools in nearly every state. In a recent study of charter schools in large cities including Boston and Denver, researchers found that charter schools received nearly $8,000 less per child than assigned public schools.
Just as an assigned school may not be the best fit for every child in a certain ZIP code, so, too, a certain charter or lab school might not be exactly where every student will thrive. But that is why parents should have more such schools from which to choose.
Some parents and students may want to focus on math and science, while others may want to study the humanities and fine arts. Some charter schools, such as the GreatHearts charter school network based in Arizona, focus on classic works of literature, while IDEA McAllen in Texas is part of a network of schools with a college preparatory curriculum based on a “mastery of core subjects.” Lab schools follow a similar pattern of providing different alternatives to assigned schools.
If parents are unhappy with what is being taught, or if they fear for their child’s safety, or if they want school to do more to bring out the best in their child, they will welcome learning options.
This piece originally appeared in the Virginian-Pilot