In the last several days, I took some time to examine Senate Bill 451 and its provisions for establishing charter schools in West Virginia. My interest in doing so was based on my previous service as a school administrator in the state, as well as 11 years of experience in Ohio as an administrator for a charter school authorizer and as a consultant in the charter school office of the Ohio Department of Education.
It is this experience in both public education and the charter school environment that allows me to urge West Virginia citizens to do everything possible to halt this odious legislation.
After more than 20 years of growth nationally, it is noteworthy that some of the trend lines for charters are on the decline. This experiment with deregulation has resulted in massive corruption, fraud and diminished learning opportunities for young people.
As a state monitor, I observed a number of incompetent people serve as charter school administrators because Ohio state law has no minimum educational requirements nor any professional licensing prerequisites for school leaders.
In addition, numerous conflicts-of-interest, including a board member serving as landlord and management companies charging exorbitant rents for properties conveniently used for charter schools, are only part of the problem of the charter experiment.
In Ohio, where charters have operated for 20 years, the trend line is down significantly. From a high point of more than 400 schools, 340 are operating today. Moreover, there is a junk pile of failed charters that have closed. The Ohio Department of Education website lists 292 schools that are shuttered, with some closing in mid-year, disrupting the lives of students and their families. Moreover, total charter school enrollment in the state is down by more than 16,000 students since 2013, the peak year of charter operations in the Buckeye State.
The West Virginia omnibus measure allows online schools to operate, as does Ohio and other states. But last year, Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, one of the largest e-schools in the country, closed amid scandal, where the owner and his administrators funneled millions of dollars in donations to friendly state legislators while padding enrollment numbers to gain state education payments.
In my home state of Pennsylvania, there is also a growing scandal involving an online school. The West Virginia Legislature has not heeded these lessons to be learned from its neighboring states that have been in the troubled charter school business for decades.
In a 2015 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, the data collected nationally cast doubt on the effectiveness of these schools for K-12 learners. One summary of the report stated that “online charter schools place significant expectations on parents, perhaps to compensate for limited student-teacher interaction.” Such a conclusion should give state educators pause and put a halt to this legislation.
With the demise of so many hyped “schools of choice,” these now defunct “electronic classrooms of tomorrow” are, in fact, yesterday’s schools of the failed charter experiment.
A final word of caution. To some, the very term “public charter school” may, in fact, be an oxymoron.
The public should know that, when states authorize charters to operate, exemptions are made in the state code to facilitate this deregulation of public education. But charters may not even be public schools. In cases testing the constitutionality of charter schools, the Washington State Supreme Court first held that charter schools were unconstitutional based on the fact that their governing boards were not selected by qualified voters in an election. The court modified its ruling in October 2018. But in a dissenting opinion, one justice wrote that charter school legislation “creates a parallel public school system that provides a general education, serves all students and uses public funds, but lacks local voter control or oversight.”
Members of the West Virginia Legislature would be wise to reread that sentence. In an age where the formulation of public policy serves to address how we apply limited resources to satisfy unlimited needs, we don’t need and can’t afford two systems of “public” education. And if the reason for such legislation is to exact revenge against public employees who protested the meagerness of their compensation and benefits, that is both wasteful of scarce public resources and shameful conduct by those who are in office to serve, not to inflict pain on those who also serve the public.