Son on father's shoulders walking towards school building.
Keith Warther for Courier Newsroom

Republican candidate for governor Glenn Youngkin has embraced charter schools and “school choice.” Here’s why that has some concerned. 

This is part two of a three-part series examining Republican Glenn Youngkin’s education agenda. You can find part one here.

The first time Rupa Murthy walked into a Virginia public school with her eldest child, she felt like her family had joined a new community—one that she was eager to be a part of. Here, the 43-year-old Richmond resident had found like-minded parents and neighbors all working to make sure their kids got the very best education possible. 

Unlike private schools, which are often exclusive or can feel “pay-to-play,” Murthy said, public schools give parents like her a voice. They all have an equal stake because they all pay local taxes, which go toward funding public schools. 

It feels like “we can have sort of an equitable voice in our kids’ education,” she continued. Her two youngest children are students in Richmond Public Schools, and her 15-year-old attends one of Virginia’s 18 governors schools, a public magnet school.  

“The thing that really [ties] us to the school system are the people that make it up: the teachers, the families, the principals, the leaders,” Murthy explained, “and we [are] really glad to be part of that fabric.”

Because of how impactful this sense of community has been for her family, Murthy—and many others across the state—has paid close attention to the governor’s race between Glenn Youngkin and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The two candidates have dramatically different education agendas, and the outcome of the election could have a profound impact on the future of Virginia’s children. 

In part one of this series, we examined Youngkin’s proposed tax changes and how they might take vital funding away from Virginia public schools. Today, we’re looking at how the Republican candidate’s embrace of charter schools and “school choice” could similarly harm the state’s public education system.

Charter Schools: More Choice or ‘Another Way to Take Money Away From Public Schools?’

In 1954, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that state laws segregating public schools on the basis of race were unconstitutional. In the ensuing years, as backlash to school integration raged across much of the country, the modern “school choice” movement was born

Initially, school choice advocates pushed for vouchers to allow parents to send their children to private schools using all or part of the public funding set aside for their children’s education. Starting in the late 1980s, however, the movement grew its footprint by embracing the concept of charter schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded and tuition-free, but are privately run by individuals or boards. As a result, these schools can become for-profit, which in some cases, effectively turns education into a money-making enterprise rather than a public good. 

These schools don’t have to follow the same regulations as public schools, don’t have to answer to school boards, have flexibility to set their own curriculums—which means they can be influenced by those with ideological goals or preferences—and are not bound by union contracts, which means they can more easily fire teachers. 

In exchange for this flexibility, charter schools must meet certain standards and remain financially stable. If they don’t, they can be shut down, which can be hugely disruptive for families.

Over the past 30 years, charter schools have spread across the country, from state to state and city to city. About 3.2 million students attend roughly 7,500 charter schools across 44 states and Washington D.C., according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. While that number may not seem large in a nation with more than 55 million K-12 students, it is growing rapidly. Only about 1% of public school students attended charter schools in the 2000-2001 academic year, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution. By the 2016-2017 academic year, that figure had risen to 6%.

As more and more charter schools have opened, they’ve also become a lightning rod for criticism. They’ve received backlash for draining funds from public schools and have faced accusations of racism and segregation. Numerous instances of fraud and corruption have also been documented.

Virginia has largely avoided the drama surrounding charter schools, with only seven charter schools currently in operation. But that could all change soon, as Youngkin has a plan that would nearly quadruple that number. 

The wealthy private equity tycoon has proposed using American Rescue Plan funds to open 20 new charter schools—or as he calls them, “innovation schools”—across the state at a cost of about $100 million. 

Youngkin and other supporters of charter schools, such as former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, argue that they get better results and offer more opportunities to parents and students—especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds and in poorer communities. 

There is some evidence to suggest that students at certain charter schools in certain cities and states do outperform their public counterparts. But on the whole, most studies have found that charter schools are not, on average, better or worse in student performance than their traditional public school counterparts. 

A comprehensive 2010 study funded by the US Department of Education and conducted by Mathematica Policy Research found that on average charter middle schools that held lotteries for entrance were “neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement.”

“It’s not the promised success in terms of magnitude that the case has been made for,” said Bob Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development. “These schools have shown real difficulty in scaling. None of them are the size of a reasonably small city school system.”

James J. Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, a union of more than 40,000 teachers and support professionals, argues that expanding the number of charter schools in Virginia, as Youngkin intends to do, would hurt the state’s public education system.

“It’s just another way to take money away from public schools,” he said.

In Virginia, both charter and public schools receive state dollars for every student who enrolls, so any student who goes to a charter school takes that money with them, depriving the public school they would otherwise attend of that funding. This outcome has been shown to disproportionately harm districts in economically disadvantaged communities. 

Youngkin’s plan would rely on federal dollars to cover the initial costs of standing up the 20 schools, but those institutions ultimately would take funds away from public schools—a fact Youngkin himself admitted in a video.

A Youngkin campaign spokesperson declined to go on record, but indicated that additional support for the schools would come from private partners.

Murthy opposes Youngkin’s proposal for the same reason she opposes his tax proposals: “As a citizen, as a parent, as a mom—I think our tax dollars need to stay dedicated to public education,” she said.

Youngkin’s School Choice Vouchers Also Draw Fire

Youngkin’s charter school plan isn’t his only nod to the school choice movement. He also proposed using $1.2 billion of American Rescue Plan funds to give $500 vouchers to Virginia parents to pay for “recovery from the learning loss and mental health issues created by our failed public schools.” 

Virginia already has a robust private school landscape with nearly 1,000 private schools serving over 140,000 students, and Fedderman believes any vouchers are just another attack on public schools.

“We are against anything dealing with vouchers because vouchers essentially take from the public schools, and that is just not something that we stand for,” Fedderman said. “It goes against the value of ensuring that all of our students have the resources that they need, and this would just be a distraction from what the students really need.”

Pianta also questioned the merits of the proposal, wondering what would actually be accomplished with $500. 

“That’s not going to provide parents under any scenario enough money to purchase a private educational slot, regardless of the availability of whether that’s a good slot or not a good slot for that student,” Pianta said.

McAuliffe—who in 2017 vetoed a bill that would have made it easier to create charter schools—has avoided directly discussing charter schools, but has repeatedly hammered Youngkin’s efforts to take money away from public schools. 

Fedderman also believes that Youngkin’s plans collectively represent something far more insidious. 

“I don’t believe any of these programs that seek to take money from [public schools] is moving in the right direction,” he said. “And really, I believe it is the start of a movement to segregate our schools again.”