The question of whether West Virginia should join the majority of states in allowing charter schools consumed much of the Legislature’s time in its regular and special sessions this year. After long debate, the Legislature allowed public charter schools on a limited basis.
That could have settled the question, but the debate continues now that it has moved from the Legislature to the state Board of Education and to the counties.
On Sept. 4, a group of state and county education officials met behind closed doors at Parkersburg’s Blennerhassett Hotel to discuss the implementation of the new charter schools legislation. As reported in the Sunday Gazette-Mail, the state board must vote to put proposed policies out for at least a 30-day public comment period, then the board must vote on enacting policies.
“We need to gather some information, put it in a draft of some sort in terms of policy, and we want to have that to you by October — it’s a swift timeline — and build an extra month in for a lot of discussion because this will be a hot topic,” state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine said in April, as quoted in the Gazette-Mail story.
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee says his group will fight every charter school proposal that comes up. “We oppose charters in any form,” he said.
So far, there has been little if any action toward forming charter schools until the state board acts. For example, spokespersons for the school boards in Kanawha and Putnam counties have said they have received no inquiries.
“At this point, we haven’t heard about any county that has had discussions about charters,” Lee said.
WVEA members have made it clear they support education for all children in West Virginia, and they expect the state to “provide adequate funding for all public schools, not a few,” Lee said.
After the state school board issues its proposed rules, the WVEA and its members will make their comments heard on how the presence of charter schools would affect all students in West Virginia, Lee said.
What does the new law do?
House Bill 206 opens the public school system to charter schools. The number of charters is limited to three until 2023 and could increase by three every three years after that.
Charter schools are meant to empower new, innovative and more flexible ways to educate children. That can be by a distinctive curriculum or a specialized academic or technical theme.
The new law allows public charter schools formed by any combination of parents, community members, teachers, school administrators or institutions of higher education. They must be public schools, and they may not be affiliated with any religious sect. They may not employ religious practices in admissions, curriculum or employment.
Public charter schools must be nonprofit. They will operate under the authority of the county boards of education, and they may recruit students only from the county or counties that form them.
Now that the Legislature has acted, it’s up to the state school board and the Department of Education to devise rules and regulations to implement the new law.
“The West Virginia Department of Education has not received any direct inquiries from parties interested in starting a charter school. However, under the language of the bill, local school boards of education are the authorizing entities. The WVDE cannot speak to whether or not any interest has been expressed at the county board of education level,” said Kristin Anderson, spokesperson for the state school board.
Anderson said the Department of Education intends to follow the directives outlined in HB 206, specifically:
Propose to the West Virginia Board of Education for consideration a policy relating to various charter school components no later than January 2020.
Make application forms available for charter school applicants in February 2020, with an application deadline of August 2020.
And provide training programs for charter school applicants, administrators and charter school governing board members relating to the application process and the roles and responsibilities of charter school board members and authorizers.
Charter schools in Ohio
Most states allow charter schools. Some allow them to be operated by for-profit operators, while some don’t. Ohio has had charter schools, which it calls “community schools,” for several years.
Because of the Ohio law allowing charter schools, most are located in its eight largest urban areas. Only one operates in a county along the border with West Virginia, that being Columbiana County, which is across the Ohio River from Chester.
In the 2017-18 school year, Ohio had 340 charter schools. The idea behind those schools is to offer choices for families seeking nontraditional public educational settings for their children in grades K through 12. Community schools are tuition-free for Ohio students. They’re public, nonprofit, nonreligious schools that receive state and federal funds but are independent of traditional school districts.
The nonprofit part separates Ohio from some other states. Several states in the Southeast allow the for-profit Charter Schools USA to operate charters.
According to the most recent annual report on Ohio community schools, about 104,000 students were enrolled in charters in Ohio in the 2017-18 school year. That was about 7 percent of total public school enrollment. Enrollment in community schools peaked at about 121,000 students in the 2013-14 school year.
About one-fourth of students in Ohio charter schools were enrolled in virtual schools, which rely on online instruction instead of classroom instruction.
So how did Ohio’s community schools perform academically? Ohio grades each school each year. In the 2017-18 school year, five schools received an A, 26 were graded B, 55 C, 95 D and 79 received an F. Percentage-wise, about two-thirds received a poor or failing grade.
However, compared with public schools in the eight largest urban areas, where most charters operate because those areas have the highest percentages of economically disadvantaged students, community schools performed at about the same level academically as public schools.
Charter school organizations’ reaction
West Virginia’s law also requires the state board to “consult with nationally recognized charter school organizations.”
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has been the most visible group lobbying state lawmakers for charter schools. According to Paine, members of the group are not enthusiastic about what the Legislature passed.
“We have a very watered-down charter school bill, quite frankly. They’re a little bit perturbed,” Paine said. “They don’t think it’s going to work.”
On June 28, the day Gov. Jim Justice signed the charter school bill into law, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools issued a news release on their website criticizing the law.
The release listed two provisions in the new law it called problematic. One was county boards being the single authorizer. “States with district boards as the only authorizer typically see very few public charter schools open ... making them (county boards) the only pathway for a high-quality applicant to receive approval ensures that there will likely be very few public charter schools in West Virginia, as county boards are not equipped or incentivized to approve high-quality applicants,” the release states.
The second provision was a cap that effectively only allows one charter school per year. “While a reasonable limit on the number of public charter schools opening in a year can help a state plan for charter schools opening, a cap as low as one per year stifles organic growth of schools and prevents high-quality applicants the opportunity to open schools that could serve the highest-need students.”
The West Virginia law allows for three charter schools initially, beginning in the 2021-2022 school year. An additional three could be opened after July 1, 2023.