This week marks the start of the 2016 session of the General Assembly. Among the bills to be discussed is a proposed constitutional amendment to allow the State Board of Education more power to establish public charter schools. (This bill was passed during last year's session, but needs two consecutive "yes" votes from the GA to be placed on the ballot for ratification by Virginia voters.)
Style Weekly's Leah Small has a nice rundown of the political stakes involved:
Expect Democrats to push against a proposed amendment to the state constitution that many Republicans hope will grow the number of the state’s charter schools. It would allow the State Board of Education to create charter schools without approval from local school boards.... Many Democrats disagree on the grounds that the operation of public schools belongs in the arena of local schools boards, not the state.
It's good to see consistency from our public officials, as we see the Republicans call for more local control and the Democrats push for centralized.... wait, what? Isn't it Republicans who rail against powerful central governments, and Democrats who often want to overcome resistance to change from local officials?
I wrote about a similar situation last March, when Republicans blocked local governments from setting a "wage floor" when hiring contractors. Then, Republicans were more concerned about what they saw as onerous regulations on small businesses than about letting local governments do what they want. I compared this to what political scientists call "situational federalism," where politicians support the idea of a strong federal government OR the power of local government when and where it suits them.
The same dynamic is going on here. Republicans drop the whole idea of "local control" whenever its convenient; in this case, they care more about "school choice." Democrats (driven in part by teacher union opposition to charters) are left on unfamiliar ground: supporting the principle of local autonomy.
The irony here is that the constitutional provisions that prevent the State Board from seizing the initiative on charter schools were put in place by progressive reformers. As Delegate Jim LeMunyon noted in a November op-ed supporting the constitutional amendment, the state government's role in school control was part of the racist "massive resistance" strategy to fight desegregation. Led by then-US Senator Harry Byrd, the state closed schools rather than allow them to be integrated. (To confuse things even further: on the national level, Republican appeals to "states' rights" were -- and often remain -- almost always coded racism.)
So the parties, officials, and key issues may have changed, but conservatives again are seeking to restore the state role in education, while progressives line up for local control. Just don't expect that alignment to last - even through this session.