There's little about the drafty, cavernous lunchroom inside the old Patrick Henry Elementary School to indicate that the place is a battleground.
For most of the past four years the shuttered school's darkened windows have stared blankly at the flow of traffic along Semmes Avenue. But on this cold February night, the long-abandoned cafeteria bathed in fluorescent lights is full of life.
“Welcome to Patrick Henry School!” says an elderly woman in a fuzzy gray sweater, warmly greeting a seemingly endless line of guests elbowing through the double doors. New arrivals sign in and add themselves to a standing-room-only gathering of public-school parents — young, old, black and white.
This is the final open house before the Patrick Henry School for Science and Arts, Richmond's first charter school and Virginia's first elementary charter, closes its application drive. By the end of the evening, the school's founders — an unlikely mishmash collection of mostly-white, Forest Hill-area urbanites and black city political leaders — will have more than enough applications from families interested in the 130 or so available slots for the school's inaugural year.
But perhaps the most important person to have been welcomed to Patrick Henry's musty corridors in recent months is Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Since taking his oath of office Jan. 16, the Republican governor hasn't hesitated to trot out Patrick Henry School like a prized pony. This little would-be school has become a poster child for the major education-reform initiatives McDonnell has named as one of his top four legislative priorities — and a place for politicians and educators to match swords over the future of education in Virginia.
McDonnell discussed charter schools — and Patrick Henry — with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during a recent phone call. Patrick Henry also was featured prominently during McDonnell's announcement of his pick for Virginia secretary of education — charter school proponent Gerard Robinson.
Robinson made a lengthy appearance at Patrick Henry for the Feb. 4 open house, chatting with parents, answering questions about charter-school law and giving nearly two hours of face time to Patrick Henry's organizing board.
Again last week, McDonnell stood with Patrick Henry parents during a news conference revealing the particulars of his reform legislation.
By hitching his wagon so securely to Patrick Henry, Gov. McDonnell also takes a significant risk, says William Bosher, a longtime educator and former Virginia superintendent of schools.
Bosher, who was co-chairman of McDonnell's transition team for education, serves as executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Institute, which focuses on research, training and policy analysis.
“I think with … Patrick Henry at a launching point, it would be critical in the capital city for the governor to make sure that that school is successful,” Bosher says, cognizant of local, long-simmering political resistance to the school.
Bosher says that publicly, Richmond School Superintendent Yvonne Brandon and the School Board have been less hostile to the idea of charters, but “the history has been that school boards have either refused to review applications or have made it so difficult for the applicants that very few charter schools exist — even though in Virginia charters are public schools.”
Bosher largely dismisses what's considered to be the brewing constitutional battle over McDonnell's push to allow charters to be approved by institutions other than local school boards. Also last week, the Virginia School Board Association and Virginia Education Association indicated their opposition to relaxing Virginia's charter laws.
The state constitution vests control and supervision of schools in school boards, but Bosher points to two schools for the deaf and blind overseen directly by the State Board of Education, one of the potential agents likely to be included if charter-authorizing bodies are expanded.
McDonnell's administration is less dismissive, but no less confident about its plans, attributing much of the resistance — to both Patrick Henry and the expansion of charter-school offerings statewide — to “fear of the unknown.”
“I think a lot of it is concern over turf, traditional turf as it relates to supervising traditional charter schools,” says McDonnell's senior adviser for policy, Eric Finkbeiner, of the longstanding public-education resistance to charters. Once approved, the schools gain a level of semiautonomy over their operations, including everything from budget to instruction that's often seen as a threat to district school boards.
The hostility from education leaders that Bosher highlights comes in many forms. At their Feb. 2 meeting, members of the School Board grilled Patrick Henry organizers, calling them on the carpet with questions that sounded as much like accusations regarding the school's finances, plans to comply with federal disabilities law and their ability to secure a much-needed loan to renovate the 80-year-old school building.
During the open house, new School Board member Maurice Henderson, in whose district Patrick Henry is located, took the opportunity to talk with Robinson, the state education secretary, as well. His questions were benign, but colored by the past two years of struggle between Patrick Henry proponents and city school officials. Henderson asked Robinson if every charter should succeed, especially applications that seemed lacking. Robinson, giving his pat answer, answered that they shouldn't.
Robinson declined to comment when asked by a reporter whether Patrick Henry's success was critical to the governor's agenda.
Sources close to the School Board say administration and elected members have remained strongly resistant to the school's success.
“I don't see Mayor [Dwight Jones] or the School Board trying to do anything to make it happen,” says Paul Goldman, a local pundit and former adviser to former mayor and Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. Last week Wilder aligned with McDonnell in support of charters. “They could make this thing happen if they want to,” Goldman says. “You have to assume they haven't been paying attention, or they don't want it to happen.”
A prime example of that are revelations earlier this month that Patrick Henry was excluded in Brandon's proposed School Board budget.
“This superintendent and this School Board are more open to charters than any in the past,” Bosher acknowledges, but “even in the face of the governor's initiative and [President Barack Obama's] initiative, no one could find Patrick Henry in the School Board budget.”
One thing is becoming increasingly evident: It would be difficult for city leaders not to pay attention. School Board Chairwoman Kimberly Bridges has been at both of McDonnell's news conferences when Patrick Henry was mentioned. She's publicly offered Richmond's support to the governor as a district with newfound experience in negotiating charter law. And the state wants part of the billions in federal education-stimulus money tied to President Barack Obama's desire to see more charter schools.
McDonnell adviser Finkbeiner says the governor's office has been in recent direct talks with the Richmond School Board, reiterating the state's commitment to charters — and to Patrick Henry.
“The governor has highlighted it and for good reason,” Finkbeiner says: “He's committed to showing people around the state that Patrick Henry can be successful” and an example of success in charters.
“Failure is not an option there,” he says. “We're committed to supporting Patrick Henry and making it succeed.”