Gov. Jim Justice has signed a bill legalizing West Virginia’s first fully online charter schools and creating an unelected board that will be allowed to approve two statewide virtual charter schools.
Under the new law, each of the two online schools will be allowed to enroll up to 5% of the statewide public school enrollment. That was about 252,400 in the fall, meaning the online schools could exceed 25,200 students combined if enrollment levels hold.
House Bill 2012 also allows local virtual and in-person charters to expand at a rate of up to 10 every three years, compared to the three allowed every three years under existing law. Local virtual charters could each enroll up to 10% of their county’s public school students.
Student outcomes at online charter schools led professors and pro-charter organizations alike to urge caution. Republicans, who won supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature in November, fast-tracked the legislation.
In 2019, when the GOP had majorities in each chamber, but not supermajorities, Senate Republicans rushed to pass an omnibus education bill. The omnibus, which evolved over that year’s legislative session, packaged the legalization of West Virginia’s first charter schools with other provisions that public school employee unions opposed — but also with increased funding for public education.
Justice said at that time that he was “absolutely against” charter schools, and he planned to veto the omnibus. The legislation eventually generated West Virginia’s second statewide public school worker strike in as many years.
Justice said then-Senate president Mitch Carmichael was “imploding” himself and the Senate in pushing the omnibus.
Eventually, Justice said he supported “two or three pilot charter schools” and signed into law a watered-down version of the omnibus that only allowed three new charters every three years. The new law Justice signed Thursday allows much more than that.
Justice neither issued a news release, nor held a news conference, to announce the signing. Earlier in the week, staff in the Governor’s Office did not answer questions when asked if Justice would sign the bill.
“It’s not been our practice here the last four years to comment on or tell people what we’re going to do [regarding bills] before we do it,” said Chief of Staff Brian Abraham, noting that bills can have technical issues that require vetoes.
Overriding a veto by the governor requires only a majority vote in the House and Senate.
Students who leave traditional public schools for charters take public school funding with them, because West Virginia’s education funding model is largely based on enrollment.
West Virginia doesn’t have any charter schools. Under the 2019 law, charter schools were allowed to start opening this school year. The 2019 law allowed virtual charters, but the state Board of Education later passed a policy banning them.
It is now up to the state school board to change its policy to comply with the new law. The board might be able to use its constitutional power to defy the Legislature, but lawmakers are already pushing a constitutional amendment to remove that power. The Legislature also controls the state board’s funding.
The Senate voted 19-14, with Sen. David Stover, R-Wyoming, absent, to pass this year’s charter school bill.
Republican Sens. Amy Grady, R-Mason; Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur; and Ryan Weld, R-Brooke; joined all 11 Democrats in the Senate in voting against passage.
The House of Delegates’ final vote was 68-31. Only Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, was absent.
Joining all the other Democrats in voting no were Republicans Josh Booth, R-Wayne; Jordan Bridges, R-Logan; Mark Dean, R-Mingo: Zack Maynard, R-Lincoln; George Miller, R-Morgan; Tony Paynter, R-Wyoming; Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell; Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire; and Christopher Toney, R-Raleigh.
The charter school bill is the second piece of education legislation Justice has signed into law during this year’s session.
The first allows people with non-education-related bachelor’s degrees to become public school teachers — even if the degree they have isn’t related to the subject area they plan to teach — as long as they complete pedagogical training and pass the same subject-matter and competency tests required for traditional teachers.