The governor says he supports charter schools. The state revised its charter law last summer. The school districts are in the country's forefront. So why does Virginia have only four charter schools? The Center for Education Reform gave Virginia's charter school law an "F" because local school boards possess sole authority to approve charter school applications. Once the applications are shot down, there is no appeal process, the charter school advocacy group's research director explained.

"I call it a 'charter law in name only,' " Alison Consoletti said.

Last year, Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed that charter applications be reviewed by the state before returning to the county for the local board's decision. If turned down, the applicant could appeal to the state. But only the first part passed the General Assembly. "It just added another layer to the already weak approval process," said Consoletti, noting that the state board has no power to approve an application.

In Virginia, as well as Maryland, charter employees must belong to the traditional school system and follow the pay scales of the existing system. In following union rules, the charters don't have wiggle room to extend school days, enhance salaries or otherwise define themselves as unique alternatives.

Kristen Larson, who is on the board of Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, an elementary charter school in Richmond, said, "It was definitely challenging to get the application approved."

Larson said she believes few charter schools exist in Virginia because of the inhospitable state law: "A lot of charter school advocates look at Virginia's law and say, 'Why should I bother?' "

That creates a vicious cycle, in which having only four charters creates a lack of understanding about charters, she said. "People think it's a private school. People think we charge tuition. It falls into a lot of the stereotypes, like we're taking money from a lot of the other public schools." - Lisa Gartner