West Virginia’s state charter school approval board has hired its first employee: an executive director who has advocated using the “culture war” over issues like critical race theory to promote “school choice.”
Charter school, private school and home-school advocates often use phrases like school choice, “education reform” and “educational freedom” to describe charters and non-public school vouchers.
Critical race theory is generally a way of analyzing society, history and racism’s role in them. Conservatives use the term broadly. West Virginia Republicans provided weak examples of it being taught in local public schools when they tried, and failed, to pass legislation this year addressing it.
Charter schools are publicly funded institutions that are nonetheless freed from many state personnel laws and other public school rules. They can be entirely overseen by unelected boards and private management companies.
The unelected West Virginia Professional Charter School Board’s new executive director, James Paul, co-authored a paper this year titled “Time for the School Choice Movement to Embrace the Culture War.” An Ogden Newspapers reporter pointed out the paper in a tweet after Tuesday’s hiring announcement.
“Critical race theory (CRT) and the high-profile projects pushing the radical ideology’s discriminatory ideas, such as The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, are trying to divide Americans by skin color and pit them against each other,” Paul co-wrote with Jay Greene.
“Many foundations are comfortable declaring that ‘Black Lives Matter’ and drafting canned press releases about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI),” they wrote. “Very few education reform advocacy groups have been willing to emphasize the ever-increasing cultural division in public schools as part of a strategy for advancing school choice.”
Paul and Greene wrote that “a better approach for education reform groups would be to provide information about these debates, emphasizing the fact that CRT is trying to divide parents and that school choice is a solution,” and advocated “promoting choice to parents who are concerned about political activism and other so-called social justice trends in neighborhood schools.”
The paper shared results of a survey that sought to, as Paul and Greene put it, estimate “the potential yield that choice supporters could earn if they made a cultural argument for choice and convinced ‘not sure’ respondents that radical cultural indoctrination is, or certainly will soon be, a problem for them.”
The paper bears the logos of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, where Greene is a senior research fellow, and the Educational Freedom Institute, where Paul is either a fellow or the research director.
That Educational Freedom Institute is directed by Corey DeAngelis, who is also national research director for a pro-school choice group founded by the family of former U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos. DeAngelis also uses his 96,000 Twitter followers to trumpet school choice and excoriate teachers unions.
Paul didn’t respond to requests for comment. Adam Kissel, chairman of the West Virginia Professional Charter School Board, announced the hiring. He said there were about 10 applicants for the position.
Kissel said the three board members attending an earlier meeting unanimously voted to offer the job to Paul, who has since accepted the $96,000 annual salary plus the state benefits that any other starting state worker would receive. The other two board members didn’t provide comment Tuesday.
“I’m thrilled that an additional highly qualified, high-achieving person is coming to West Virginia,” Kissel said.
Kissel has himself criticized critical race theory.
“Doctrines like CRT divide us by race and perpetuate strife between teachers, parents and school boards,” Kissel wrote for the Washington Examiner, alongside The Heritage Foundation’s Angela Sailor. The piece also advocated for another type of school choice that Republicans have already brought to West Virginia: open enrollment to any public school, as long as parents can get children to these out-of-district locations.
Kissel has also written opinion pieces elsewhere arguing certain grants, scholarships or programs that colleges explicitly or implicitly offer only to women, LGBT people or racial minorities are illegal.
But he said he isn’t pursuing Paul’s “culture war” paper strategy of trying to persuade more parents to shift their children from traditional public schools to charter schools. Nor, Kissel said, was that a factor in his vote to offer Paul the job.
“Our mission was to execute the law, and my goal is to do no more and no less than my responsibility,” Kissel said.
“If a very progressive charter school came to us and met all the criteria, it would be treated the same as every other applicant,” Kissel said. “And this comes back to the core principle that not every school is best for every child, and some children and parents will want to have a progressive charter school and that’s part of the diversity that needs to be fulfilled in the state.”
Paul, according to Kissel, is currently finishing a doctorate in education policy at the University of Arkansas. The university is known as a hub for school choice- supporting academics like Patrick Wolf and Greene, who earlier chaired the university’s Department of Education Reform. Kissel said Paul hasn’t run a charter or other type of school before.
“And neither have I, and I was able to do a good job in my first year,” Kissel said.
Kissel’s board decides which charters that apply to it can or cannot open, and it is supposed to share with the charters’ individual boards the responsibility to hold them accountable.
Paul’s research interests listed on his University of Arkansas page are school choice, virtual schooling and “diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education.”
He authored an article in The Federalist — once again, alongside Greene — titled “Why Is Your College Tuition So Expensive? It’s Funding Piles Of ‘Diversity’ Bureaucrats.”
Paul will be the first employee of a board that, since it first met in August 2021, has, without staff and temporarily without any funding, approved West Virginia’s first five charter schools to open. The staff-less board members were tasked with a deadline to review applications that ran hundreds of pages long.
The board’s fifth member quickly resigned, and a fourth, Brian Helton, hasn’t shown up to the meetings at which the board approved opening the charters. Neither did he, according to Kissel, take part in the closed session vote to offer the job to Paul.