The efforts of a group hoping to create Northern Virginiaís first public charter school took a hit last week when Fairfax County school officials said much work remains to be done before the schoolís application passes muster.
The school systemís Charter School Review Committee, which is overseeing the application review, isnít convinced there is enough funding to make much-needed upgrades to the schoolís proposed site in Falls Church. The committee also has questions about finding the money to hire a full staff, buy desks, and purchase textbooks.
Those concerns are legitimate. The educational landscape is littered with stories of well-intentioned educators who opened charter schools in September, only to shutter them the following June. Start-up grants and corporate donations can get programs off the ground, but those revenue streams dry up quickly if sustainable funding isnít available.
Part of the challenge is finding ways to keep per-student costs in line with traditional public schools, and debunking the age-old stereotype that charter schools represent the ďWild WestĒ of public education.
For prospective charters in Virginia, however, an even bigger hurdle is getting the blessing of local school boards that donít like the idea of losing students and money to a group that plays by a different set of rules.
Thatís not entirely fair. Fairfax Countyís first charter school proposal appears to be a thoughtful one and, assuming a reliable funding mechanism is identified, deserves a fair shake from school officials.
Charters won't solve all of the county's educational challenges, but in a cash-strapped county where nearly 40 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home, itís time to consider doing things differently than they were done a generation or two ago.
Nationally, more than 1.5 million children attend about 5,000 charter schools — although only four of those operate in Virginia.
Charter schools are public schools with the flexibility to innovate and freedom to sidestep some rules and policies in exchange for achieving strong academic results.
That doesnít mean sidestepping key testing benchmarks. Every student would take Virginia's Standards of Learning tests and other standardized measures of accountability, so determining whether charter school students are hitting their academic targets wonít be a problem.
Charters differ from magnet schools, such as Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology, because they arenít allowed to use selective admissions policies. They donít charge tuition, and any child living in the school district can attend.
The Falls Church-based Fairfax Leadership Academy, the brainchild of J.E.B. Stuart High School teacher Eric Welch, has made a strong case for itself.
When he first floated the idea of a charter in October, Welch talked about establishing a small, 450-student school to bolster achievement among low-income, at-risk students in grades seven through 12. Courses would focus on career building skills and college prep, and the school day would be eight hours — one more than regular high schools. The Fairfax Leadership Academy also would operate under a year-round calendar, raising the number of in-class days from 183 to 206 and spreading the interminable summer break across the entire year.
Those are all good things, as is the idea that every student in in the countyís 182,000-plus system shouldnít be treated like a widget. After all, every child has a unique way of learning and many would benefit from more options.
A 2009 study from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that nearly one in five charters performed better than public schools, but 37 percent performed worse.
That underscores that there still is a lot to learn about charter schools, and educating children in general.
That said, itís not a stretch to think students in Fairfax County would gain from increased cooperation between traditional and charter schools. The "us vs. them'' mentality that has permeated the two types of public schools for decades no longer serves a purpose.
Hopefully, the Fairfax Leadership Academy gets a fair shake when it goes before the School Board next month. Thousands of Fairfax children stand to benefit.