National charter school groups say the charter school bill that flew through the West Virginia House of Delegates lacks sufficient regulation of charter schools, especially online ones, and could discriminate against special education students.
“The bill includes a cap for virtual schools of approximately 28,000 students/year, a number far too high to manage or ensure quality,” the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said in a statement. “The West Virginia Senate should incorporate caps allowing a virtual school to grow only after it has demonstrated agreed-upon levels of student performance.”
The House passed the legislation, House Bill 2012, a week ago. Passage came just days into this year’s legislative session.
The Senate Education Committee has put the bill on its agenda for 2 p.m. Tuesday. You can listen online to the meeting on the Legislature’s website.
House Bill 2012 would legalize fully online charter schools in the state — an attempt to overturn the West Virginia Board of Education’s current ban on them.
Studies on charter schools nationally have found they perform about the same, if not better in some areas, than public schools. But the track record for specifically online charter schools is different.
“Students who switched to virtual charter schools experienced large, negative effects in math and [English Language Arts] that were sustained across time. These effects were consistently of magnitude that warrants serious concern and further investigation,” wrote professors and a doctoral student at the universities of Notre Dame, Washington and Kentucky in a peer-reviewed study published last year.
That study was on Indiana schools, but it’s just one in a line of studies stretching back years, looking at states like Ohio and the nation as a whole.
West Virginia’s bill would allow one statewide virtual charter school that could enroll up to 10% of all current public school students in the state, plus a local virtual charter school in each of the 55 counties. Those could each enroll a further 10% of each county’s public school enrollment.
Every public school student who transfers to these online charter schools equals less funding for the county public school system. And with their track record, these online charter schools may not improve student performance.
“The data from virtual charter schools, again, has not been great,” said Veronica Brooks-Uy, interim vice president for policy at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
Brooks-Uy said she thinks these online schools are an “incredibly important” option for families, but recommended starting with lower enrollment ceilings and allowing virtual charters to grow in size based on how well they perform.
“Some of these virtual schools can be like 5,000-plus [students], because there are literally no limits in terms of physical space,” she said of online charter schools in other states. “And, so, what we have seen is that, unfortunately, what that can sometimes lead to is sort of a too-big-to-fail type of situation.”
“Even if they are having issues, an authorizer may be reluctant to hold them accountable because there are so many students involved,” she said.
Authorizers are the organizations that actually approve or deny applications from groups that want to start charter schools. If authorizers allow a charter school to open, they also help oversee its performance.
West Virginia’s initial charter school law, passed in 2019, generally makes county boards of education the only authorizers.
This year’s bill would allow more authorizers, including a couple that could override those county school boards. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools supports this move.
But this year’s bill also crosses out part of the law that gave authorizers the ability to quickly close a charter school if it failed to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management or failed to meet performance expectations. The authorizer could still shut down the school, but only after its up-to-five-year-long contract period expired.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said that would mean “undermining the law’s commitment to accountability.”
“There have to be very clear criteria in place for when you would revoke a charter contract,” said Brooks-Uy of the other national group. “We’re just saying that one of those criteria should at least be financial mismanagement.”
House Education Committee Chairman Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, said he believes the bill would still allow for a quick closure in instances of financial issues.
As for the 10% enrollment ceiling, he said he thinks that figure was “arbitrary.” He said he doubts that ceiling will be reached.
“We could always tweak it, but we didn’t want to restrict them if they did have the 10%,” he said.
The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools has raised concerns with a section of the bill that says a virtual charter school can’t enroll a special education student unless the student and a parent first meet with the student’s individualized education plan (IEP) team or its equivalent “and discuss whether enrollment in the virtual public charter school is an appropriate placement for the student.”
The center has gone as far as to call that provision illegal. Paul O’Neill, an attorney who is also a co-founder and senior fellow at the center, said this requirement runs the risk of having special education students be “counseled out” from attending these schools.
“The language that I saw proposed in the bill seems to create a hurdle for kids with disabilities to attend one particular category of charter schools,” he said. “And that hurdle wouldn’t apply to other kids. I think it’s a problematic hurdle for anybody because the emphasis of our special education laws is we’re trying to provide access for all kids to public schools.”
Instead, O’Neill recommends “you admit the child and then you figure out, OK, are there challenges to how the child might be met in this particular school?”
Then, the school would work to provide supports to help overcome those challenges -- and would most often be able to do so, O'Neill said.
He also said the bill needs to be more robust generally about how special education students will be treated.
“I don’t think it restricts them,” Ellington said of the provision. “I think it was just being cautious to say, make sure it’s an appropriate venue for that child.”