The West Virginia Board of Education has placed out for public comment major proposed changes to its charter school regulations.
In March, the Legislature passed, and Gov. Jim Justice signed, legislation that specifically allowed for fully online charter schools and the accelerated growth of charters generally.
The groups that authorize charters can allow these schools to ignore personnel regulations and other rules that traditional public schools must follow. Charter schools can be authorized by nonprofits and be run day-to-day by private companies.
The new legislation, House Bill 2012, amended the 2019 law that initially legalized charter schools. The first charter has yet to open in the state.
The state school board is so powerful under the state Constitution that it might legally be allowed to ignore the new law by not changing its current charter policy.
But West Virginia Department of Education legislative liaison Sarah Stewart said the board’s newly proposed policy changes were “predominantly made in response” to legislators’ changes to the 2019 law, and she contended the law is “controlling” on the issue.
The Gazette-Mail hasn’t yet read all the proposed changes to the 65-page policy. The changes include significant amounts of underlined material proposed for addition and lined-through material on the chopping block. You can read the proposed changes by visiting https://wvde.state.wv.us/minutes/current/AGENDA1.htm and clicking on the link to the policy.
You have until July 12 to comment on the proposal. The online portal to comment on the proposal, available at wvde.state.wv.us/policies, should be open by Thursday, according to board secretary Virginia Harris.
After the public comment period ends, the board will ultimately vote on approving, amending or denying the proposed changes.
Debra Sullivan was the only board member to vote against advancing the proposed changes Wednesday. She was also the only board member to vote against the current charter policy.
Jim Wilson was the only board member absent Wednesday. There are nine members total.
Sullivan objected to the fact that public schools superintendents, teachers and others who would be affected by the proposed changes weren’t consulted on them.
“This will affect, ultimately, money in the pocket of those superintendents in the counties,” Sullivan said. Charter schools, which can have leaders who are entirely separate from county school boards, reduce funding for public school systems when students leave those systems for the charters.
“Good policies drive effective actions and outcomes,” Sullivan said. “And polices actually form the foundation of everything that happens in our schools, so they are critical.”
She said she’s typically given two months to review draft policy changes before the board votes to place them on public comment. But for these changes, she said, “I had a week and could not do it.”
She said she understood there would be a public comment period now, but dealing with issues before they even reached that point would create a “stronger policy.”
“When we receive [proposed changes] to put them out on comment, we as a board are actually making a statement that we’ve verified the process that we’ve been through, that they’ve been through, including the department staff, the board and critical stakeholders throughout the state,” she said.
Stewart said the new charter legislation set a July 1 deadline for the board to “promulgate” a policy fitting the law, but she said a vote by the board to at least propose policy changes by that date should satisfy that requirement. It also shows a “good faith attempt” to comply with the law, she said.
With the board unable to meet the July 1 deadline, Sullivan made a motion Wednesday to delay moving forward, and fellow board member Scott Rotruck suggested waiting until June 30 to vote on putting changes on public comment.
But board member Tom Campbell objected, followed by board President Miller Hall.
“There will be plenty of time for more work. I feel like a delay in the process at this point is not necessary,” Campbell said. “There is no guarantee that once we receive the comments that we will adopt the policy, but I think we need to be in the position to do that, to comply with the legislative request.”
Hall said, “I don’t know what more we can get done between” now and June 30.
Stewart mentioned some concern over waiting until later this month to post the changes for public comment because it would increase the interlude when the state law and current board policy would conflict, and it would delay the imposition of additional criteria for applicants who try to create virtual charter schools.
No board member gave the official “second” to Sullivan’s motion, which is required for a motion to be voted on.
Campbell then made a motion to go ahead and post the proposed changes for public comment. Rotruck seconded Campbell’s motion, bringing that motion to a successful vote.
While the board has significant constitutional power to possibly ignore a host of state education laws, the current political power of Republican lawmakers threatens that.
Up until the last night of the regular legislative session, the Legislature was on the verge of proposing a constitutional amendment that would allow it to force the board to bow to its will. The state Senate killed the proposed amendment that final evening.
And, lack of policy control aside, the Legislature has long controlled education funding.