My Side of the Fence

The danger isn't going too far. It's that we don't go far enough.

Whose job is it anyway?

So the House of Delegates has passed the Charter School bill.  This bill would enable an un-elected state board to have control over who can create charter schools.  This authority currently lies with the local school board.  I hear a lot of banging on about school choice and whatnot but I'm unsure this fixes anything.  To listen to many Delegates – includes some folks that represent us – this action is the solution. 

Let's have a quick quiz:  Guess how many charter school applications have been received in Manassas?  Give up?  It's zero.  Just a fact, not a conclusion.capitol

I think charter schools would be great but I have misgivings.  I don't think the public schools are perfect by any means.  But I worry….

I worry about the job that the government gave the public schools: educate all comers.  Very few other institutions have that kind of requirement.  Ponder on that for a minute.  It's not an abstract issue.  Think about trying to do that where you work.  Imagine your boss comes to you and says "Hey, Mark, I need you to teach this guy how to be a real estate agent…oh, btw, he only speaks Urdu.  Now, get after it.  He needs to take the test (in English) in 3 months."  Reckon what your odds of success are?  That's what our schools are faced with ever day.

I worry about intent and practical effect.  It's great to say that "the parents of every kid that comes to this school must volunteer 15 hours each semester to work in the school."  It's a great idea.  It inextricably links the parents with their childrens education and every scrap of research indicates that this is always beneficial.  It also eliminates most single-parent households.  Especially if they are low income.  So, yes, this school will perform well but is it fulfilling its mission?  Should we just skip mission for some schools?  If we do, aren't we just moving the problem around?

I worry about state overreach.  Just because something hasn't happened does not mean the state has to get involved.  "We only have 5 charter schools in Virginia and XXX place has 20" doesn't sound like much of a reason to me.  Honestly, I can just hear my mother: "If your friend Scott jumped off a cliff would you do it too?"  I'd also point out that the localities provide some 40% of the funding for the schools.  Seems like we should maintain some voice in that.  Local control is no bad thing.

I worry about taking the easy way out and maybe that's the bottom line.  Much like the column I wrote that complained about toll roads and stratifying public infrastructure – aren't our representatives at the local and state level taking the easy way on this issue?  In both cases are we not just outsourcing our problems?  Education is a great equalizer.  Our mandate as a society is to keep that institution healthy.  Does this Bill do that or are we just shirking the hard work that's necessary?  

In Manassas have we done the heavy lifting that's necessary?  I think that most would agree that the schools have embarked on a years-long turnaround that has begun to show results.  What has the City Government done to help?  Have they passed tough policies that might help?  Engaged the public?  Could the School Board go farther?  What have the Council and School Board done together?

 I think until we can answer all of those questions with real action then we haven't done all that we can do and Charter Schools are just a convenient way for local politicians to check a box.  I think the same thing at the State level.  It would be far more work – and far more politically dangerous – to actually undertake meaningful action so we're stuck with Charter schools and survival of the fittest….or wealthiest.

Look, I'm not opposed to infusing experimentation into the mix.  While Vice Mayor I worked cooperatively with the schools to do just this on several occasions while in office.  Manassas Next got our Science and Tech program started and began our involvement with the Tech Sector.  When I got out of office I started an organization to keep doing the same thing: applying private sector thinking to education problems.  Time will tell whether some of these nascent ideas bear fruit or not.  Deep in my entrepreneurs' heart, I know that the state government should always be in the business of helping localities innovate.  In schools or other core government functions.  Relentless innovation is an American trait and one we wear on our collective sleeves.  However, in this case shouldn't it be done with an eye towards enabling our public school systems to succeed instead of replacing them or diluting their mission?  Shouldn't we focus every ounce of our energy on that?  

Seems like it to me.



  1. Nice job.  I wish I understood the concept of "Charter Schools" in general and why supporters want them.  I worry about Charter Schools creating a de facto segregation based upon any number of characteristics whether it's socio-economic, racial, cultural or religious.  I've seen positive reviews for Charter Schools in urban areas such as Washington, D.C. and NYC based upon academic abilities where everything else is equal.  Private schools are always an alternative for those who want school choice.  

  2. Many people complain about the Federal Government and it's overreach into State matters, now the State Legislature seems to be taking a page out of the Federal playbook to reach into the local jurisdictions to tell them how to spend their tax money.  I wonder what kind of outrage we will hear from those who want smaller government – will the roar be deafing or will it be crickets.

  3. Charters elsewhere have diluted the mission and created more equity issues. And moved things toward resegregation. Public schools can succeed.

  4. Totally agree. The problems in Ohio were due to lack of oversight. They took taxpayers money but there was no accountability. When the numbers for some schools were released, charter schools, they had been exaggerating their outcomes. The federal gov gave large sums of money to state of Ohio in effort to improve u deeper forming schools but often it was misused.  They were taking their own tests, not the kinds in public schools. One school in particular hired non- qualified people and family members. This was the Charter my teacher friend worked at- she was special Ed with speech certification. When she asked for support , she got none. She finally blew the whistle. See know your  "charter website " for details. I am summarizing. This all came to " light" just as the sage of Ohio was goi g to take over the administration of Youngstown City schools. They of course thought they could do better. Ohio schools are not divided into school districts by county. The same districts from 1900 still exist today.  Some are all white. Still. The Youngstown schools had problems with white flight in the old days (?? 70's) and the schools were increasingly dominated by lower income students. Northeast Ohio is in the "Rust belt" between Pittsburgh and Cleveland.  Steel industry is gone and smaller communities like this town could not regain economic viability as cities like Pittsburgh. I grew up in a small town outside of Youngstown. My father and his family all went  to Youngstown schools in the 30s. They were good schools. D not quote me on some of this.  Read for yourselves. This is based upon memories and following the antics of charter schools in Ohio. My Ohio teacher friend is how I learned about all these recent activities. 

  5. I have lived in many places.  Army brat who never got tired of travelling.  The problem is this great little town is that your government seems to think they're governing a lilly white exurb instead of a urban area.  I love living here but Manassas is either going to elect some folks to get after this problem or she will continue to fade.  It will take awhile but we are nearly at the place where it is not reversible.

  6. No charter schools.  Let the counties do what Prince William County has done with its "charter type schools."  People line up to get in those schools.  Prince William County remains autonomous over its own money and schools.

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