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Charter school hearing

Clockwise from top left, West Virginia University professor Joshua Weishart, Assistant West Virginia Attorney General Sean Whelan, Charleston-based attorney Jeffrey Blaydes, Mountain State Justice lawyer Bren Pomponio and Kanawha Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Bailey at Monday's online hearing. Weishart, Blaydes and Pomponio are representing the plaintiffs, while Whelan represents the defendants.

Last week, Kanawha Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey granted an injunction against the opening of five charter schools in West Virginia, because, it would appear, the state constitution doesn’t allow them.

“No independent free school district, or organization, shall hereafter be created, except with the consent of the school district or districts out of which the same is to be created, expressed by the majority of voters voting on the question,” the constitution reads.

The new charter school law would seem to be in violation, because it put an unelected board in charge of approving these schools for operation.

The constitutional challenge was raised by two public school teachers who sued Gov. Jim Justice, Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, after the West Virginia Legislature passed, and Justice signed, a charter school bill that was so questionable that pro-charter lobbying groups spoke out against it.

Charter schools may draw students away from public schools, and those students receive taxpayer funds to attend the charters.

While “school choice” has been the supposed reason for allowing in-person charter schools and online charters open to anyone across the state, public school teachers and personnel, and their unions, see the new law as a way to weaken public education and punish them for going on strike in 2018 and 2019. The strikes had strong public support and embarrassed GOP leadership in the Legislature.

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Public educators and administrators have a point. Charter schools don’t have to follow the same curriculum required by public schools, nor do they have to adhere to the same standards and guidelines for hiring qualified teachers. Although charters once were viewed as a bipartisan issue and a good option for improving education in the United States, two decades of data suggest the schools get the same results as their public counterparts. Some provide excellent education, some are average and some are awful.

Studies of online charters have shown miserable results for students, and it’s hypocritical that West Virginia would allow online charters after Justice and others bashed online education as insufficient when the coronavirus pandemic forced many public schools to operate virtually.

Another mark against charters is that many exist to make money. The school might be formed by a local board and hire local teachers, but they’re often run by large, for-profit companies. Some of those companies go looking for profitable places to open shop, which seems like it could be the case with a proposed charter school in Nitro.

Charter schools seem a poor fit for West Virginia, yet they’ve been pursued fervently by the Legislature in the past two sessions. In 2019, the Legislature got a bill through that allowed for a limited number of charters. In line with the constitution, local school boards had the say in whether a charter school could open in their district. With a GOP supermajority in 2021, the new bill that circumvents local, elected school boards was passed.

Charter school proponents don’t think the court injunction will hold, and they’re already preparing to take their fight to the West Virginia Supreme Court. Even if the charter schools are defeated by this lawsuit, there are workarounds in place, and charter proponents say they’ll use whatever they can to be open by the fall. And, of course, the Legislature can always go back and provide even more avenues for the schools to operate.

This is something the state GOP wants, not because it will improve education in West Virginia, but because it will weaken public education and school unions and provide revenue for out-of-state backers. They’ll keep going until they get it.

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