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Gov's charter schools measure dies in House panel

Friday - 2/1/2013, 6:45pm  ET

By BOB LEWIS
AP Political Writer

RICHMOND, Va. - A proposed state constitutional amendment that would have given Virginia more say in establishing charter schools died in a House committee Friday over concerns that cities and counties would wind up footing the bill.

Republicans and Democrats alike were uneasy over what Del. Mark Sickles described as possibly the "mother of all unfunded mandates." The measure, one piece of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's sweeping education reform package, failed to advance on a bipartisan 9-12 Privileges and Elections Committee vote.

The bill was intended to jump-start creation of charter schools, which receive public funding and must meet accountability benchmarks but can operate more like private schools under certain less restrictive rules.

But because the amendment was silent on who pays for the charter schools, delegates of both parties warned that hard-pressed city and county governments could be stuck with the costs for a school that state government imposed on them.

"This could be the ultimate mother of all unfunded mandates," Sickles said.

The amendment's sponsor, Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Prince William, said it was necessary because the state Constitution now allows only local school divisions to create new schools. Rarely, he said, are local school boards willing to take on responsibility for charter schools, so a change is needed to allow state government to be more accommodating to private interests who offer to develop charter schools.

"I personally know of charter (school) applicants who have spent a great deal of money trying to put together the business plan, working the charter process and basically get the stiff-arm from localities," Lingamfelter said.

"You don't have to have a lot of those before word travels around the state, `Hey, don't come to Virginia with an innovation in charter schools because you're going to get the run-around,'" he said.

Lingamfelter sought to allay the committee's concerns about the cost to local schools by noting that such details would be written into enacting legislation to be passed later, after the amendment is ratified.

Lingamfelter and legislative liaisons from the McDonnell administration who were in the room resisted two Republican efforts to amend the bill so that it would guarantee localities would not be handed a new burden without accompanying money from the state. When the vote came, doubts about funding doomed the measure.

Unless McDonnell sends down another resolution in the next few weeks with a provision holding localities harmless, no constitutional change for charter schools would be possible until 2016.

In Virginia, constitutional amendments must pass two General Assembly session separated by a legislative election without any alteration, then be ratified by a majority vote in a statewide election. All 100 House of Delegates seats are up for election this fall. The next legislative election would be in November 2015, for all House and Senate seats.


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