Guest Host: Marc Fisher

There are nearly five thousand public charter schools across the country, up from just a handful a decade ago. Virginia has only four, despite having a governor and secretary of education who champion charters. Powerful local school boards oppose them for shifting resources away from traditional public schools. There’s also a lingering racial sensitivity, the legacy of the state’s strong resistance to desegregation. We explore the debate over the future of charter schools in Virginia.


  • Stuart Gibson Fairfax County School Board Member.
  • Don Soifer Executive Vice President of the Lexington Institute, Director, Virginia Charter School Resource Center, DC Public Charter School Board
  • Lacy Ward, Jr. Director, Robert Russa Moton Museum, Farmville, Virginia
  • Mamie Locke Virginia State Senator (D-District 2); Chair of Virgina Legislative Black Caucus


  • 12:06:41

    MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo. Privately run, publicly funded charter schools have exploded over the past decade from a handful of experimental sites to nearly 5,000 schools nationwide. But while Virginia passed its charter school law in 1998 and despite a governor and secretary of education who champion charters, Virginia has just four charter schools. Most members of the state's local school boards which have to approve each charter school's application oppose charters. They say traditional public schools can do everything a charter can without dividing up scarce resources.

  • 12:07:33

    MR. MARC FISHEROne reason there hasn't been much of push for charter schools until recently is because Virginia already has some of the nation's top-performing schools. There's also racial sensitivity to the idea of privately run public schools, a legacy of the state's resistance to desegregation in the 1950s. Joining us to explore the issue of charter schools in Virginia, Don Soifer. He's the executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington-based think tank that promotes a limited role for the federal government. He's the director of the Virginia Charter School's Resource Center and a member of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board. Stuart Gibson is a member of the Fairfax County School Board representing the Hunter Mill District, and joining us on the line from Richmond is Lacy Ward, Jr., the director of the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville, Va.

  • 12:08:24

    MR. MARC FISHERSo let's start with you, Don. Don Soifer, is there -- as you look at Virginia, is it now standing out as a place that is unusually unfriendly to charter schools?

  • 12:08:39

    MR. DON SOIFERVirginia is a place where the public schools are good. They're typically in the top quarter in the country, but Virginia has what's known as a notoriously weak charter school law. It's not that good charter school applications are being regularly denied left and right, but in fact, the law provides so little operational freedom and many of the conditions that the best charter schools operators in the country rely on that it's just that Virginia hasn't attracted the sort of investment or the time and resources it takes to attract the real high-quality applications that really could make a difference in Virginia education.

  • 12:09:14

    FISHERStuart Gibson, Fairfax County has obviously among the better public schools in the nation, certainly if you go by test scores, and yet, here -- you're living in one of the hotbeds of charter schools in the nation. Just across the river here in the District, Washington has the largest charter school system in the country. And you've had political pressure from people who've wanted Virginia and Fairfax to move more aggressively into charter schools. Why hasn't it happened?

  • 12:09:45

    MR. STUART GIBSONWell, I will say that from a political standpoint, there's not been a lot of applications come our way. We've had -- this is my 16th year on the school board, and we've had exactly one charter school application in my tenure. And it's a situation where the charter school applicants ended up working with the school administration to develop a model that ended up -- we were able to implement at lower costs and serve more children using the applicant's model. So we found that the type of innovation they wanted, we were able to accomplish without setting up a parallel governance structure.

  • 12:10:18

    FISHERAnd, of course, that -- if you listen to the -- many of the early charter school proponents, that was the whole idea. The charter schools would be innovative and creative in ways that the regular public schools weren't able to be, and all of these great ideas would then morph with -- would sort of leak by osmosis into the regular public schools. Now, folks in the District tell us that that has not happened, that the District public schools have not adopted many new ideas from the charter schools. Do you -- is that still the main premise behind the charter school movement, Don Soifer?

  • 12:10:52

    SOIFERWell, charter schools typically provide choice. Charter schools, particularly charter high schools, tend to be smaller. They tend to attract a higher likelihood of poor performing or minority or kids from economically challenged households. Often, they're kids who just haven't done well in another educational setting. The District of Columbia is a unique charter school arrangement. I mean, the funding is different. It's a set of circumstances with one of the nation's strongest charter school authorizers, an independent authorizing board with a lot of experience and a lot of expertise that really knows how to do this well. And we've seen the development of charter schools in the District of Columbia so that 40 percent of public school kids in the District attend charter schools. Some of which are really world-class exemplary charters.

  • 12:11:40

    FISHERAnd some of which fail and go out of business, which was also part of the attraction of charters was that if they didn't work, they'd go away.

  • 12:11:48

    SOIFERThat's right. You certainly don't celebrate failure, but where you have a charter school authorizer that is willing to look at a persistently low-performing charter school and close it when the need dictates. That is the system working well, and that is what you're seeing particularly the current D.C. charter school leadership under Chairman Brian Jones has really put an emphasis on improving quality, and that's what we've seen.

  • 12:12:10

    FISHERYou can join our conversation about charter schools by calling 1-800-433-8850 or e-mail us at Kojo, K-O-J-O,, or send us a tweet to @kojoshow. If you are involved with a charter school or have sought to have one come into your community, you can tell us about that, or perhaps you've gone to a charter school in the District, Maryland or Virginia. And do you think the public schools in Virginia are innovative or flexible enough or should this alternative system be given wider berth in the Commonwealth? And let's bring into the conversation Lacy Ward. He's the director of the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville, Va., and someone who is trying to bring a charter school to Virginia. Is that right?

  • 12:12:59

    MR. LACY WARD JR.That's correct, Marc.

  • 12:13:00

    FISHERWhat -- tell us about your effort there and what barriers you've faced.

  • 12:13:05

    JR.Well, there are actually two efforts we need to talk about, and the first one is what is the Robert Russa Moton Museum? We're a museum located in a former R. Moton High School in Farmville, where in 1951 students walked out in protest of unequal educational conditions that resulted in one of the five cases in Brown coming out of Virginia, and a lot of the rhetoric you hear surrounding charter today centers on Virginia's reaction to the Brown decision, the era known as massive resistance. We find that in today's environment, though, there still are barriers to equal educational opportunity, and we think that charter provides at least one avenue for addressing those barriers.

  • 12:13:50

    FISHERAnd so what -- where does your application to create a charter school stand now, and what's next?

  • 12:13:57

    JR.We sought first assistance from the federal government and even planning to create a charter school. I think Arne Duncan and the Obama administration were quite innovative in putting out within their charter school program a selection of grant opportunities that said, hey, we know there are certain states where it's difficult at the state level or at the local level to create charter, and so they created this opportunity for nonprofits that were willing to be innovative to say, can you on behalf of your community find a way to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles of state and local governance of schools and try to get charter introduced in your community? And so Moton being one of those innovative nonprofits, we applied for funding.

  • 12:14:43

    JR.It's a quite competitive process, over 50 applicants nationwide. Twelve awards made, only one award in Virginia. And we think the reason we were competitive is our ability to navigate the difficult issue of discussing the history of the civil rights movement and the reaction to Brown and because we serve a community that very much needs innovation to come into the environment and to make us more competitive with our neighbors to the north, who are quite right. Virginia is performing well, but it's when you take Virginia on average. We're in Southside Virginia. We're in the tobacco belt. And when you come down to that part of the state, you won't find the same innovations that you find in Northern Virginia.

  • 12:15:27

    FISHERStuart Gibson, as you look at the Fairfax schools, obviously, some high-performing schools but also some schools that are dealing with a very difficult population and having some of the same struggles that inner-city schools have. Isn't there room there for some innovative privately run group to come in and try something different?

  • 12:15:46

    GIBSONLet me dispel the myth that you have to have a charter school to be innovative. Some of the greatest innovations that we've seen in some of the charter schools around the country were replicating in Fairfax County. We have partial foreign language emersion programs. We have programs that serve children outside the regular school day and outside the regular school year. Until funding ran out last year, we had seven year-round schools. We have schools that serve children with very challenge -- with great challenges that come to us, for example, preschoolers with autism. And so one of the things that we try to do in Fairfax County is invite people with fresh ideas, including our own teachers and principals, if they have a great idea to come to us with it.

  • 12:16:26

    GIBSONBecause, frankly, the whole issue is not innovation. The issue is whether you have to create a separate governance structure to get there. I did want to address something that Mr. Ward just said about bureaucratic hurdles. I also served as the immediate past president of the Virginia School Board Association, and one of the things we've done as a state association representing all 134 school boards in Virginia is put out a manual for charter school applicants that gives step-by-step instructions and sample applications about how one goes about applying for a charter from a local school board in Virginia. And we also offer free of charge technical assistance to any applicant that wants to present a charter school application to a local school board in Virginia.

  • 12:17:06

    GIBSONWe're not standing in the way. We're trying to help charter school applicants navigate what needs to be done. Our concern, our main concern is that student achievement not suffer because of a different governance structure, and we believe that Virginia has a very strong charter school law because it ensures that there's an accountability system in place before the first child comes through the school door.

  • 12:17:28

    FISHERYou make it sound as if the process is comfortable and easy, and yet, there are only four charter schools in the entire state. You know, you look across the river, and it seems like it's a much smoother process. Maybe they err too much on the side of letting schools start up without having the proper foundation because a good number of them have shut down. But is the process really as easy as what you've just said?

  • 12:17:51

    GIBSONWell, I'm not saying it's an easy process. I think to start any school is a difficult process. To start a new school within a current public school system is a difficult process. You have to hire a principal. You have to get a staff up. You have to get a building and equipment. You have to have instruction planned. You have to have all the teachers working together on the same page. I think one of the biggest challenges the District of Columbia has faced is a turnover of leadership at the top over the last 15 years. We've had extremely steady leadership. As I said, this is my 16th year on the school board. I served with three long-serving superintendents. And it's much, much easier to maintain continuity of instructional program and focus on student achievement when you have that continuity of leadership at the top.

  • 12:18:34

    FISHERAnd that's Stuart Gibson. He's a member of the Fairfax County School Board. Don Soifer from the Lexington Institute, member -- you're a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. As you look at the distinction, the differences between what's happened in the District and what's going on in Virginia, obviously, Governor Robert McDonnell when he was campaigning was a very strong voice for school choice. He's come into office, and he's attempted to make some changes, but there still hasn't been much progress. What continues to -- explain the difference between the two jurisdictions.

  • 12:19:05

    SOIFERWell, Governor McDonnell, Speaker Bill Howell, Secretary of Education Gerard Robinson had been outspoken and strong leaders of high-quality, high-performing charter schools. This is not a situation where Virginia is looking to open the floodgates, and, you know, historically and around the country, the track record of charter schools is mixed. Virginia is in a really unique situation, though, because it now has the opportunity to look around the country at what is working best and what models are most successful around the country for charter schools, draw from that what's the most appropriate for Virginia and really design a path to charter schools that works best for Virginia.

  • 12:19:42

    SOIFERVirginia has a strong tradition of school choice. You have in Fairfax County already a governor school, Thomas Jefferson, that is frequently cited as one of the very best high schools in the country. In fact, we have some charter school applicants that say, what we wanted to develop is a Thomas Jefferson school that doesn't have an entrance examination, so that every child who attends school in the District has the opportunity to attend without having to pass a test or entrance requirements to get in.

  • 12:20:11

    FISHERLet's go to a call. David in Arlington. David, it's your turn.

  • 12:20:15

    DAVIDOh, hi. How are you?

  • 12:20:16

    FISHERGood. Go ahead please.

  • 12:20:18

    DAVIDI just want to make the point that you can't really talk about Virginia as a uniform place. The county policies vary so greatly, even Fairfax versus Arlington. And, of course, we're right next to D.C. My child has a learning disability -- reading. And he's gone to every single program there is in Arlington, Va. I mean, every single one. And I was told he should -- we should move. If we move to D.C., then they will pay for a charter school or a private school where you can get individualized special attention from the school, like the Lab School for instance.

  • 12:20:53

    DAVIDIf we move to Fairfax, they will -- they're very accommodating, and they will make sure that he gets the resources he needs, whether it's a charter school or a private school. But Arlington has a zero percent. I mean, there's no chance they will make sure -- even if your child remains two years behind, it doesn't matter. They're not going to accommodate him. And I think the policy is probably, you know, statewide, from Norfolk to Roanoke, are -- vary greatly. So I don't think it's really accurate to talk about Virginia as some uniform policy.

  • 12:21:26

    FISHERStuart Gibson, obviously, Fairfax has far greater resources than a smaller community such as Arlington, let alone a more impoverished place such as a school system, say, in Southside Virginia. But should parents have to move to find accommodation for kids who have a particular skill or deficit of some sort?

  • 12:21:46

    GIBSONI don't think so at all. I think that one of the great strengths of Virginia's system is that under our constitution, control of education is vested in local school boards. And there's an old political expression that goes, the government that's closest to the people is the government that is most responsive. And I think that if parents have a concern with their school board, they need to go to their school board.

  • 12:22:10

    GIBSONOne of the challenges in school systems like Prince Edward County, where -- and I did wanna make this historical note. Teachers in Fairfax County went down to Prince Edward County in 1964 and volunteered their summers to teach poor children how to read when the Prince Edward County school board closed the schools. But if -- in some jurisdictions, there's one elementary school, one middle school and one high school because they're a very small jurisdiction.

  • 12:22:36

    GIBSONAnd I've been asked questions by my colleagues around the state. Where is the place for a charter school in my district when I have an elementary school that's got 250 students and a high school that's got 500?

  • 12:22:47

    FISHERLet's bring into the...

  • 12:22:48

    JR.That's an excellent question. I'd love to jump in on that one that Stuart raised.

  • 12:22:50

    FISHERGo ahead. Yeah, go ahead. Lacy Ward, go ahead.

  • 12:22:53

    JR.Yeah. And we applaud the efforts from people all around the country who came to Prince Edward County in the 1960s, where we're faced with such a difficult situation as a county government that would forego public education rather than integrate. The model we're conceiving in Southside is a regional model because we do realize that in the single districts, the economy's scale probably don't offer opportunity for innovation and for bringing new items into the district.

  • 12:23:24

    JR.And so we've really crafted an application for seven localities to work on a regional model, much like our governor schools operate in Southside Virginia. I'd like to go to Don's point, too, about the governor's school in understanding the difference between that type of educational alternative and a charter education alternative, and the main one being an admission policy as a way of getting admitted to the school. You hear the term called resegregation and, you know, sometimes it's racial, sometimes it's socioeconomic.

  • 12:23:55

    JR.But basically, what has happened, as we moved beyond the period of Brown, we found methodologies by which -- the more aggressive parents, the more supportive parents, have been able to move their children into these highly selective programs such as governor's schools. We're really -- we're coming back to a point where there's less inequality of opportunity. And so I guess we're most passionate about coming out of the history of Prince Edward and looking at the area of Southside as how do we gain the same opportunities in Southside Virginia that are present in Northern Virginia?

  • 12:24:32

    JR.And really, that's not happening right now with our traditional school boards. And, you know, to take a proactive approach, to try to bring something to children that we know they need to be competitive in the 21st century, I really think is an effort that ought to be applauded as opposed to, you know, trying to block that effort.

  • 12:24:51

    FISHERWell, we'll get more into that, and we'll take more of your calls and comments at 1-800-433-8850 after a short break. We'll also be joined by State Senator Mamie Locke, who will tell us why the Legislative Black Caucus in Virginia opposes the governor's plans to expand charter schools in the state. That's after a short break. Please stay tuned.

  • 12:26:57

    FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking about charter schools with Don Soifer from the Lexington Institute in Arlington. He's the director of the Virginia Charter School Resource Center. Stuart Gibson is a member of the Fairfax County School Board representing the Hunter Mill District. Lacy Ward is the director of the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville, Va. And joining us now by phone is State Senator Mamie Locke, a democrat from Hampton.

  • 12:27:23

    FISHERShe's the chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. And welcome, senator. I understand the Black Caucus is opposed to the governor's plans to expand charter schools in Virginia. Why is that?

  • 12:27:34

    SEN. MAMIE LOCKEThank you, Marc, for having me here today. And I hope that you'll be able to hear me.

  • 12:27:39

    FISHERWe hear you fine.

  • 12:27:40

    LOCKEThe caucus took a position against the governor's education reform package. It was a package of three different types of schools that will be paid for through public dollars. And the reason why the caucus has taken the position against those is not because we're opposed to innovation or to creativity or to even different methods of teaching. But one doesn't have to have a charter school to do that. You know, public school systems should have the flexibility to do the exact same things that charter schools are doing with public dollars.

  • 12:28:22

    LOCKEAnd in this era of fiscal issues and economic issues, it seems disadvantageous to the traditional public schools to be taking additional money away from them to create something new, since those same resources could be used in the traditional public schools to be innovative and creative and all of the other things that one wants a charter school to do.

  • 12:28:52

    FISHERAnd, Senator Locke, in addition to those reasons, there is also this question of Virginia's history and the sensitivity around what happened in Virginia during the desegregation process. Is that right?

  • 12:29:04

    LOCKEYes, absolutely. And because the charter school movement, in and of itself, especially in Virginia, appears to be reminiscent of the private academies that cropped up all over the place in wake of the Brown decision and defiance against integration. And, in many ways, charter schools have created an effort to kind of resegregate schools. And one of the things that we, as a caucus, don't want just to happen is the education of the children that we represent be left to -- left for, you know, the luck of the draw.

  • 12:29:44

    FISHERAnd back during that period, of course, Virginia had a system where if you were white and your school came under a federal desegregation order, you've got a state voucher that would let you go to the all-white private school of your choice. And, Lacy Ward, obviously, that legacy colors, if you excuse the word, the attitudes that people have toward charter schools.

  • 12:30:06

    JR.Oh, it's an accurate word. And, you know, the Moton Museum has existed as a museum now for some 15 years, but it's really in the last three years we've been able to build exhibitory that explores this era in history and begins to unpackage it in a way that people can make very informed an intelligent decisions about what really is at work here. You know, to say that you have a system that there is no admission requirement, there's no letters of recommendation, there's no legacy, there's no type of way of getting into the school except by chance is really the greatest way of making sure that what you have is the best is available to all students.

  • 12:30:46

    JR.Right now in Southside, the best programs we have are not available to all students, because there are admissions requirements that restrict their admission or -- you know, the term is often used. People are resegregating when we look at our advanced programs in placement. And so we wanna define a method that would allow us to admit all students. And coming back to the public dollar argument, too, I'd like to say this. I mean, there's a certain per-capita amount that's gonna be spent per student. And that amount is gonna remain the same. Whether that student receives an education in traditional school or charter school, the state is still spending the same amount of money.

  • 12:31:25

    JR.The question we should begin asking though -- and this is what charters are willing to be, is to be competitive and be held accountable for holding that charter -- is that particular student getting more return on investment for the dollars being spent at the local state and federal level to get that child an education? And that's what we're fighting for.

  • 12:31:46

    FISHERDon Soifer, obviously, race has been a part of the conversation about charter schools from the very beginnings of the movement. In the District, as I recall, when charter schools were first being introduced, the -- one of the main arguments against them was that they were going be cherry-picking. They were going to be a place where whites could put their children. Obviously, that has not turned out to be the case. The charter schools in the District are almost entirely serving black students, but race has managed to be a part of the conversation about charter schools almost everywhere.

  • 12:32:15

    SOIFERThe high-quality charter school movement is about access and about opportunity. The earlier caller is absolutely right. Schools and school districts across Virginia are not the same. In fact, the drop-out rate for black students in Virginia is twice what it is for white students. The drop-out rate for Latino students is three times what it is for white students. That's unacceptable. And Virginia may have schools that are consistently in the top quarter of achievement around the country on standardized test, but if you look at Portsmouth where the on-time graduation rate is 67 percent, Senator Locke's thoughtful leadership is something that the state benefits from greatly.

  • 12:32:52

    SOIFERBut think about the opportunity that she described. And if your kid -- and you live in Portsmouth and that's what you're looking at, you need and you deserve high-quality opportunities. And that's what this charter school movement should be about.

  • 12:33:03

    FISHERStuart Gibson.

  • 12:33:04

    GIBSONWell, I think that when we talk about access to high-quality programs, we need to talk about funding for all public schools. With the last three years, the state has cut public education funding by nearly a billion dollars, nearly a billion dollars, as our school-age population is growing by almost 100,000 students. And if you wanna look at resegregation, just look at Delaware. The legislature commission -- the study there, last year, that showed that Delaware charter schools are actually resulting in resegregating the population by race and by socio-economics.

  • 12:33:36

    GIBSONMy view is that the way to address this is not to create a separate governance system, the way to address equal access to all is to make sure that students in Farmville, in Roanoke, in Southwest, Va., which is dealing with incredible poverty, that they get access to the same dollars that we have access to in Northern Virginia. The federal government can play a role. The state can play a role. Some of the localities don't have the tax base that we do in Fairfax. And frankly, I think that we need to address equality of access to resources before we start talking about creating separate governance structures as the answer.

  • 12:34:13


  • 12:34:13

    JR.Well, the ultimate governance structure is the people. And I think that people should have the opportunity to say whether they want their education dollars managed by a school board or they want their education dollars managed by a non-profit board that may deliver to them a higher quality of service. The ultimate governance structure is the people, and these are people who originate these requests for schools.

  • 12:34:38

    FISHERThat's Lacy Ward, he's the director of the Moton Museum in Farmville, Va. Let's go to Michael in Landover, Md. Michael, it's your turn.

  • 12:34:47

    MICHAELYeah. Hi, how are you? I appreciate you taking my call.

  • 12:34:49


  • 12:34:50

    MICHAELMy first concern is that -- actually, I have a number of concerns regarding the use of charter schools, but I think a lot of the ones that people are discussing really relates to peripheral issues. And I regret not having come to the table with a lot more research at hand, but it seems to me that the vast majority of states that are trying to really push charter schools are Republican operate -- have Republican governors, and those are also a lot of the states that are having a lot of difficulty with public employees union.

  • 12:35:21

    MICHAELAnd I wonder whether or not a lot of these governors are actually trying to use charter schools as a message of undermining public employees union by -- and then, therefore, eventually, have those unions collapse so that way, they've got -- the governments will have to deal with negotiating labor grants.

  • 12:35:41

    FISHERLet's let Don Soifer give you a response. And, obviously, there have been places where charter schools have become a partisan issue, places such as the District where it has not been, but to his point, is this a Republican issue?

  • 12:35:54

    SOIFERThe partisan politics in Virginia surrounding charter schools are really somewhat bizarre if you look around the rest of the country. Typically, in charter school votes in the general assembly in the -- since 1998, but especially in the past few years, Republicans tend to vote for and Democrats tend to vote against with a few exceptions. That's generally how it goes. Charter schools are an idea that really came to fruition. It was the Clinton administration that really, really made charter schools a strong national presence.

  • 12:36:22

    SOIFERWhen Hillary Clinton stood at the National Education Association convention in New Orleans and said every school should be a charter school, and there was some silence in the room, that's much more where the issue is nationally and around the country. And there are a couple of states, maybe New York and maybe Virginia, where charter schools have, sort of, evolved into a Republicans versus Democrats thing. That's really not typical of how the issue evolves around the country.

  • 12:36:44

    FISHERAnd we have one example of that on the -- on line with us, Sen. Locke who is a Democrat and is opposed to charters. One of the reasons you've mentioned in the past is that charters are kind of the luck of the draw, that there is this lottery element to the decisions of who gets in.

  • 12:37:00

    LOCKEExactly. And it's going to benefit a few children at the expense of the majority of the children when those tax dollars could be used to benefit all children rather than being taken away to create these charter schools, which -- on -- which the Stanford study shows that many of them aren't working anyway. Because when Stanford gets the study a few years ago, they took -- there are 15 states and the charter schools within those states. And of the 15, only five get higher learning gains than a traditional public school, and six has lower averages than the traditional public school, and then the other four -- there are three states in the District of Columbia, they had no difference.

  • 12:37:54

    LOCKESo if it's not going to make a difference in the education of children and making sure that all children meet the higher educational standard, then why are public dollars being shunted to the charter schools or in the other mechanism that's being used, I think, in many ways, to find a way for other individuals to come back to the public school system?

  • 12:38:25

    FISHERMamie Locke is a Virginia State senator from Hampton. Though she's been joining us by phone, I know she has to move on. But thanks very much for being with us. Stuart Gibson, a member of the Fairfax County School Board, you have talked about how for -- it's actually more economical for you to start up a new public school than a charter school. In other words, for the same amount of money, you're able to serve more students in the public system than you would be able to if you started a charter school.

  • 12:38:52

    GIBSONThat's a very good point, Marc. And we actually had a charter school application come to us about eight or nine years ago from a group of parents of children, preschoolers with autism. And they had a particular instruction or method that they wanted to employ in their charter school. And what happened was they could serve a certain number of students for the amount of money that it would cost. It was about $3 million. And the administration of the school system, Dr. Domenech, who was our superintendent, worked with the parents to employ their model in a way that allowed us to serve three times as many children with the same money, using the model that the parents wanted.

  • 12:39:29

    GIBSONAnd one of the things that it really helped relieve from the charter school applicants from this group of parents was the need for them to constantly recruit and train and retain qualified people to work with these young people who suffer from a very, very debilitating condition of autism, especially when they're two, three and four years old. And so we were able to leverage the school system's resources working with the parent group to use their model. And we didn't -- it actually ended up, I think, being more beneficial for students to not have the charter school, and we actually turned down the application.

  • 12:40:07

    FISHERI have a letter that appeared in a magazine from a teacher in Milwaukee, Wis., noting that some of the best and most highly acclaimed charter schools, such as the SEED school in Washington, spend $35,000 per year, per student, which is more on the order of what you'd see in a very expensive private school, and yet, most kids, kids on the margin, are served by a much smaller per capita budget. And so, she worries -- this is a teacher worrying that too much in the way of public resources are going to charter schools. That it's a disproportionate spending level compared to what happens in the regular public schools. Don Soifer, is there any merit to that?

  • 12:40:52

    SOIFERWell, sure. First of all, SEED, which is an excellent school, some of the exemplary charter schools that you have in the District of Columbia are also world-class fundraisers so the charter schools in the District get largely the same, but a little bit less, particularly a little bit less funding for facilities than traditional public schools get. So they don't get twice as much. In fact, they get a little bit less. And potentially, I think that opportunity for fundraising really stands to benefit the first few school districts in Virginia that really wanna get out of the box and do charter schools right. It might really benefit from new education dollars from some of the philanthropic community that has stepped up to support those top, high-performing charter schools.

  • 12:41:31

    FISHERBut if schools are getting private funding and they're going out and doing the fundraising, I mean, first of all, it raises questions about who are these foundations, what do they want and is their support sustainable or is it a one-time kind of gift. But also, why should public resources be spent on top of that private money? If the private money is there and available, why not just set up the private school?

  • 12:41:51

    SOIFERWell, if you look at what it is that the best charter schools have to offer and what they would have to offer in Virginia, one of the important trends is the ability, for instance, to use data really effectively to the point where you can identify individual student's strengths and weaknesses and differentiate instruction to meet those individual strengths and weaknesses. The foundations that have been most active in supporting charter schools are really driving that and work with schools to really improve their data capacity in meaningful and tangible and measurable ways. These are things that really could benefit the kids, especially the minority and the economically disadvantaged kids right now in Virginia who are not doing as well.

  • 12:42:30

    FISHERLet's go to Patty in Shirlington...

  • 12:42:31

    GIBSONMarc. Marc, could I...

  • 12:42:32

    FISHERYeah. I'll come right back to you. Patty?

  • 12:42:34


  • 12:42:34

    GIBSONOh, sure.

  • 12:42:34

    FISHERIt's your turn.

  • 12:42:35

    PATTYYes. I'm here.

  • 12:42:36

    FISHERGo ahead.

  • 12:42:37

    PATTYHello. Thank you for having me on. I live in Montgomery County, and there are no charter schools, and there is no intention of ever having them. And what I -- the topic I wanna talk about is treating the needs of children who are gifted, truly gifted. There is nothing for them. There's a lot for the children who are disadvantaged. There's a lot for children who are really needy in many ways. But very talented children are needy as well, and there's nothing for them. And my daughter just recently started to Feynman School in Darnestown, which meets the needs of these preschoolers. So otherwise, they turned off her life if they were to go through the regular school system.

  • 12:43:23

    FISHERLacy Ward, there are certainly school boards are the main filter through which charter schools have to get before they can open up. And so, if people in Montgomery County, Md. want a charter, it's really the attitudes of that school board that are governing here. You have a plan that requires approval from local school boards, in this case, I think seven of them. Is that the right kind of obstacle that should be faced? In other words, is that the right path we should have before opening up a charter school?

  • 12:43:57

    JR.It's what the law is today. And you accept the law as where it is because what you're really doing is acting on behalf of children. If that's what you have to go through to find the best opportunity for the child, you do it. And so, we accept the law where it is today and that we have to work within it. But one point I wanted to pick up on was that question about, you know, why public? Why not just go ahead and become a private school? I live in Prince Edward County, Va., and we have one of the lowest-performing high schools in the state. And this -- yes, it is the same county that closed schools and has now gone into the bottom 5 percent of Virginia high schools.

  • 12:44:31

    JR.And so, I was having a conversation with a Prince Edward County supervisor, and the supervisors collect the taxes, give them to the school board, school board runs the schools. And he's going through a report that our turnaround specialist Cambridge presented on Prince Edward County High School. And there's page after page after page of deficiency, deficiency, deficiency. And so, I looked at the supervisor square in the face and I said, look, you spent $11,000 per child to get these kind of results. Are you getting your money's worth? And, you know, the supervisor was very honest. He says, you know, we're not.

  • 12:45:03

    JR.And so, I said, well, if I could take that same $11,000, give you a better output and give you your money's worth, wouldn't you want that proposition? And he kind of, you know, caught a little bit off guard, but said, that would make sense. I said, that's what charter is, where you can't purchase. Because that's really what school boards are doing. You're purchasing educational service on behalf of that child, and if you're not producing the outcomes that are appropriate for that child, and it's happening across outside, somebody needs to step in and say, quit pouring local taxpayer dollars into a system that results in schools going into turnaround. That's the situation we're dealing with.

  • 12:45:43

    FISHERYou're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo. We'll continue our conversation about charter schools and ask whether it's -- whether the right question is how many there are or whether perhaps there's a different question to ask, when we come back after this short break. Stay with us.

  • 12:47:42

    FISHERWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo. And we're talking about charter schools in Virginia. If you'd like to join us, we're at 1-800-433-8850. Lacy Ward is the director of the Robert Russo Moton Museum in -- he joins us from Farmville. Va. Stuart Gibson is a member of the Fairfax County School Board, representing Hunter Mill, and Don Soifer is director of the Virginia Charter Schools Resource Center. And, Stuart Gibson, a lot of the discussion that we've had, that goes on into this debate about charter schools, has to do with how many there are in a given place, but you apparently feel that is the wrong question to be asking.

  • 12:48:21

    GIBSONI do. I think that the question is not how many. It's not whether we have X number of charter schools. It's whether charter schools are succeeding. It's not whether we have the right number or more or less. It's whether they're part of a formula for raising student achievement. We're all in education because we're about raising student achievement. And if charter schools have a role to play there, then that's important. If charter schools are there for some other purpose, then I think we really need to rethink what the question is, and I think that's the exact point.

  • 12:49:00

    FISHERAnd, Don Soifer, the studies that have come out so far about the quality of charter schools and their relative achievement compared to regular public schools have been mixed. They've generally been -- they've generally concluded that some do fine, some do better, some do worse, but it's kind of a wash, isn't it?

  • 12:49:15

    SOIFERI think that's a fair characterization. It's very easy when you start getting into methodology to design a study that shows one thing or another. But the reality of it is, is that there are a lot of charter schools, maybe a third of charter schools that are just lower performing than traditional public schools and the same number that are better. But Virginia is in a really unique opportunity to consider is, is really what's best, what's really working, what are the exemplary models that really could work for Virginia, and have the opportunity to pick and choose from those to really look at the best schools that offer what the best charter schools offer, which is higher graduation rates, data-driven instruction.

  • 12:49:50

    SOIFERKids are much more likely, in charter schools, to earn a traditional diploma than they are in traditional high schools around the country. And I think these are the sorts of things that really could do a lot to address weaknesses in particularly some schools and school districts around the state.

  • 12:50:06

    FISHERLet's go to Janet in Springfield, Va. Janet, you're on the air.

  • 12:50:10

    JANETYes. Thank you for taking my call. Let me say that I do fully support the idea of charter schools, and I think that they are needed in Fairfax County. Believe it nor not, some would disagree with me, Stuart Gibson mentioned that raising student achievement is our primary goal. And when you look at some of the scores in a number of our schools, particularly several of our Title I schools, there is cause for concern. If I'm an African-American parent and my child attends Dogwood Elementary School, and the black pass rate on a writing test is 56 percent, and the pass rate for whites is 100 percent, I'm starting to wonder if my child is getting a good education at that school.

  • 12:50:45

    JANETI know Title I does require school choice as these schools do not make AYP, and they also require supplemental educational services, tutoring in some situations. And I'm curious, with a number of our Title I schools that aren't making AYP, how many of these schools are providing school choice for parents, and how many are providing supplemental educational services? And are these parents in Fairfax County taking advantage of these services?

  • 12:51:19

    FISHERSo there is this federal law that does require school choice to be offered when you have failing schools. Is that now an issue in Fairfax?

  • 12:51:26

    GIBSONI need to go back to the beginning premise because I know the caller, and Dogwood is a school in my district. Dogwood made adequate yearly progress last year. The achievement gap between black and white students and between Hispanic and white students is closing dramatically, and we've actually analyzed the data. We've put out a book. It's available on the website. It's called "Outliers." And we do offer choice at the schools, the Title I schools that don't make adequate yearly progress.

  • 12:51:52

    GIBSONAnd guess who takes the choice. Parents and students have never set foot in the school because they research scores on the Internet, and they say, that's a failing school. When we offered choice first at McNair Elementary School, another school in my district, the first year that we had to offer choice, there was not a single student in the subgroup that didn't make the cutoff that -- whose parents chose to send them to another school. It was primarily affluent white and Asian parents who chose to send their children to their school of choice.

  • 12:52:22

    GIBSONThat's one of the -- that's a different discussion, obviously. That's about No Child Left Behind. But the fact of the matter is, we are, as Don talked about, using data to drive instruction, to drive instructional leadership within the building and to address the needs of students, student by student. In a way, No Child Left Behind has opened the door for us to do that. But, in a way, it's an impediment because what happens when your high achieving students choose not to come to the school?

  • 12:52:48

    FISHERDon Soifer, talk about that question, which -- there's always right kind of haunting charter schools in a way, which -- it initially started as this notion of cherry-picking. And now it's evolved into this question of when you open a charter, when you give parents choice, the people who take it are, by definition, a self-selecting group who are perhaps, you know, more involved in their children's education, and often that correlates with incumbent class.

  • 12:53:16

    SOIFERWell, Marc, you're right. And we do know from research that any child whose parents care enough about them to ask how their homework is going, or to really consider where they're in school, and even to take actions to apply for a charter school, that kid is gonna be -- is gonna have advantages that other kids are just not gonna have. We can look at, for one example, to Richmond, where the Patrick Henry School of Science and Art, which is Virginia's first elementary charter school, opened in a school district that has a huge disparity in the quality of education.

  • 12:53:48

    SOIFERAnd some of what's going on in Richmond is a trend of real improvement, but it has not extended to all schools. And what you have in Patrick Henry, which is in its first year of operation, might be the only truly diverse elementary school in Richmond, the only school whose student population really reflects the overall diversity of the city of Richmond. And I think that there's a lot to be gained from that. And I think what's going on at Patrick Henry is one of the most exciting things happening statewide in education.

  • 12:54:17

    FISHERLet's go to Lawrence in Arlington. Lawrence, you're on the air.

  • 12:54:21

    LAWRENCEYes. Hello there.

  • 12:54:22

    FISHERHi. What's your question? You're there, Lawrence? And I think we've lost Lawrence. Let's go to Paul in Northern Virginia. Paul?

  • 12:54:33

    PAULHi. How are you?

  • 12:54:33

    FISHERGood. You have -- quick question, please.

  • 12:54:36

    PAULVery quick. I wondered if anyone is taking the time to stick to the real economic disadvantage that happens in rural schools. I've actually moved my child into Northern Virginia because of the uphill battle in getting any sort of accommodation, and that's been with two children. So anytime you start to dilute resource, I think it's a disservice to talk about studies and findings. I mean, when I get hit in the head with a hammer, I got hit with a heck of a hammer. You can talk about how the numbers play out, but the reality is it takes plenty away from public schools. You force the outcome, just like to see, to be able to think the argument for charter.

  • 12:55:14

    FISHEROkay. You're starting to fade there. But, Lacy Ward, the question of rural schools and the disparities in the education system. Most charters have flourished in inner cities. You're looking at using charters for a different reason, different model.

  • 12:55:28

    JR.Entirely. And, you know, we talk about disparity. And the disparity we're trying to address is much more geographic than racial, is the disparity between South side and Northern Virginia. And so you've got to find out what you can do on a rural environment to address that real fact. The economies of scale, we know that schools operate such as governor's schools and alternative schools on a regional model. That's probably the best model for a rural area, is to go regional and build the economies of scale.

  • 12:55:57

    JR.But I gotta go back to Don's point, too. I mean, the philanthropic involvement that's possible because you're willing to step out of the box and find a way to address disparities in education is something we think we can take advantage of as part of a charter school. You ask what do the philanthropists want. Why are they involved in schools? Why are they putting dollars in there? Most are corporate. And what do corporate donors want? They want the workforce of the future.

  • 12:56:28

    JR.And right now the workforce of the future is not being produced, at least in our region, just entirely from our traditional school system. So if we can take a long-term economic development approach and look and say, you know, we know what the workforce of the future needs to be, we know we're not getting them there right now, we know there's a way on a regional basis to begin to do that for all students -- not special selection criteria, but for all students -- we gotta move in that direction.

  • 12:57:00

    FISHERLacy Ward is director of the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville, Va., and he is seeking to bring a charter school to the community there. Stuart Gibson, a member of the Fairfax County School Board, representing Hunter Mill. In the few seconds we have left, five years from now, will Fairfax have a healthy roster of charter schools?

  • 12:57:20

    GIBSONI sincerely doubt it.

  • 12:57:21

    FISHERAnd Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute and director of the Virginia Charter School Resource Center. Same question to you. Will Fairfax have a longer list of charter schools than it has?

  • 12:57:34

    SOIFERWe're starting to see a real improvement in the number of high-quality applications that we're seeing. I think that will extend to Fairfax, and you will have the opportunity to certainly choose for some -- from some real high-quality choices.

  • 12:57:47

    FISHERGreat. Well, we've been talking about charter schools in Virginia and around the nation as well. I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks to my guests and thank you for listening.

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