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Charter schools could face hurdles in WV

A bill seeking to allow charter schools in West Virginia is raising questions about whether they would bring educational improvements seen elsewhere to local public school systems that are already struggling with finances and declining enrollment.

But Todd Ziebarth, a senior vice president for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools who said charter schools can work in the Mountain State, said he’s concerned House Bill 4011 wouldn’t actually create any charter schools because it wouldn’t give those who want to start a charter school the ability to appeal a local school board’s denial of their application.

“What’s frustrating about it is the bill is really setting up schools to be successful — if they can get open,” Ziebarth said. He said the law would have a high level of accountability for local charter schools.

He said the schools would still have to teach the same standards and give the same statewide tests as traditional public schools, but in exchange for higher accountability, they’d be free from county and state regulations, including many personnel laws.

He said this greater freedom to hire and fire could allow schools to more quickly respond to students’ needs by, for instance, replacing some staff with more math specialists.

The bill hasn’t yet hit a committee where it could see amendments from lawmakers, but House Education Committee Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson and the bill’s lead sponsor, stressed the fact that there’s no appeal process in a recent interview with the Gazette-Mail.

The legislation would create a new state entity called the Public Charter School Oversight and Authorizer Board that could approve the creation of charter schools and assume the role of overseeing them — but only if a local board didn’t want to deal with the process. Local boards would be given the first chance to approve or deny charter applications, and their decisions would be final.

Ziebarth said he feels many counties would say “Yeah, we’re going to take it up,” and reject applications. He wants them to have the first crack at approving or denying an application, but said there needs to be an appeal process, and noted 39 of the 42 states with charter school laws currently allow charter applicants to either appeal or apply directly to a non-school-district authorizer.

Financial challenges

Aside from opposition from teachers unions who don’t want personnel protections rolled back and possible concern over the West Virginia bill’s lack of specific protections for gay employees and students, finances will likely be part of local school boards’ consideration of charters.

Charter schools would be funded through transferring money from the state aid funding formula from counties to the charter schools based on how many students move to them.

Counties like Boone, where three schools are closing at the end of this academic year and 77 positions have been recommended for elimination, are already struggling with enrollment decreases.

West Virginia’s public school student enrollment dropped 1 percent from last school year. The state’s total number of public schools, at 713, is down 40 from a decade ago, according to the state Department of Education, and the number is expected to drop to 706 next school year.

Ziebarth said charter schools could be a way for rural communities to save schools from consolidation, pointing to Cornville, Maine, which was able to save its school this way.

But Kai A. Schafft, an associate education professor at Pennsylvania State University who focuses on rural education and rural community development, said he’s concerned charter schools that take away school system dollars could themselves “work to undermine the viability and vitality of traditional public schools.”

Performance debate

House Bill 4011 would allow charters, which could be start-ups or conversions of traditional public schools, to focus on students with special needs and at-risk students.

In 2009, when there were more than 1.4 million charter school students nationwide, a Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes study found traditional public schools generally performed better than charter schools in both reading and math.

A 2013 update from CREDO representing 95 percent of all U.S. charter school students — there were an estimated 2.3 million-plus in the 2012-13 school year — found charter schools had begun performing slightly better overall than traditional public schools. The report stated impoverished students, black students and English language learners all experienced more academic growth at charter schools.

“Compared to their likely TPS [traditional public school] alternative, the average charter school student now gains an additional eight days of learning each year in reading, compared to a loss of seven days each year in the 2009 report,” the 2013 study noted. “In math, students in 2009 posted 22 fewer days of learning; today, charter school students have equivalent levels of learning in math as their TPS peers.”

Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado -Boulder, has said the 2013 Stanford report actually shows that charter enrollment is only responsible for a small fraction of variation in reading test scores, and that it’s just part of a large amount of research showing charter schools and traditional public schools have little overall difference in test scores.

The Stanford researchers wrote that the increase in charter school performance among 16 states included in both studies was due “in no small part to the closure of low-performing schools.”

West Virginia’s proposed law would ban the renewal of any charter school that has a failing accreditation level from the state school board in the fifth year of its charter.

The 2013 study, which analyzed 27 states overall, noted that it and other reports showed uneven charter school performance across states.

Rural issues

While a charter school has been discussed for Charleston’s West Side, research is thin on charter schools’ performance specifically in rural areas, which represent much of West Virginia.

Riya V. Anandwala, a spokeswoman for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said that in the 2013-14 school year, the latest for which data was available, about a tenth of the nation’s 6,650 charter schools were considered rural, and they served 180,000, or 7 percent, of all students. Rural charter schools represented 3 percent of all rural schools.

A 2014 report written by Andy Smarick, the former chief operating officer for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, noted that of the eight states that didn’t allow charter schools at the time, seven, including West Virginia, were also among the 10 states with the highest percentage of their residents living in “rural” areas.

The report, citing U.S. Census data, noted that 51 percent of Mountain State residents live in rural areas, third in the nation behind Vermont, which has 61 percent of its residents in rural areas and no charter school law, and Maine, which also has 61 percent in rural areas but does have such a law.

“It is a common belief that chartering simply doesn’t mesh well with rural communities,” Smarick wrote. “To be sure, there are challenges associated with charter schooling in rural areas. But there are also numerous examples of rural charter schools that have done great things for students while also benefiting the larger community.”

He highlighted charter schools operated by the nonprofit Knowledge Is Power Program network in Helena and Blytheville, Arkansas, that he said are closing achievement gaps.

Smarick’s report was dubbed “A New Frontier: Utilizing Charter Schools to Strengthen Rural Education.”

In her foreward to it, Jamie MacMillan — executive director of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, which supported the report — carried the frontier allusion further.

“Charter schools can serve as the Lewis and Clark of rural school reform,” she wrote.

The report highlighted legal limits in several states that it argued inhibited rural charter schools, like a Wyoming law that said no charter would be granted just to avoid consolidation.

West Virginia’s law would ban one rural option: virtual charter schools. But it doesn’t define what that phrase actually means.

A 2015 study from CREDO, in partnership with others, found that students who attended charter schools that primarily relied on online learning had significantly less academic growth than those who attended traditional public schools. CREDO director Margaret E. Raymond told The Washington Post “it is literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year.”

But citing the improving trend in physical charter schools from 2009 to 2013, the CREDO study said there could be a similar pattern in the relatively new online sector.

Though he said the demographics of students who usually join cyber charters may influence the data, Schafft, the Penn State associate professor, noted his research on Pennsylvania schools showed largely negative impacts from cyber charters. He said online schools are probably the only charter school choice a lot of rural kids have.

“I just haven’t seen a whole lot of evidence that brick-and-mortar charter schools are making a lot of inroads into rural areas,” he said.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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