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If the subject is charter schools, you can bet that the very utterance of that term comes with its share of conflicts of interest, confusion, contradictions and irony. You can also add drama to that formula, thanks to a ruling by West Virginia’s highest court.

As reported a few weeks ago in the Gazette-Mail, a group of people attempted to open West Virginia Academy, the state’s first charter school. The attempt was unsuccessful, after the Supreme Court ruled that the school’s founding coalition could not attain relief because the group had not first sued the boards of education in Monongalia and Preston counties, whose students would attend the proposed school.

In reading the details of the article, there was some apparent confusion as to which entity might serve as the school’s authorizer, a legal requirement that would allow the school to eventually open. But if the subject is charters, there is usually all of the makings of irony — and then some.

Consider the irony that the leader of the founding coalition of the proposed West Virginia Academy is a professor of accounting. But then we should also know that, when it comes to all things related to charter school accounting and accountability, nothing adds up. Add to that the fact that these schools are free from many sections of state law, including school boards that are directly elected by the public. For example, in Ohio, where I live, charter schools are exempt from 140 sections of the state code.

Keep in mind that charter boards are hand-picked, selected by the companies that manage the school, where school governance by design is not accountable to the voters.

Accounting. Accountability. These are but two elements that define the fatal flaws in the design of charter schools. But there are so many others.

In March, The New York Times published my critique of the flaws of charters, which is contained within two questions:

“Why do we allow two separate but seemingly parallel systems of education, using scarce public funds that are taken from traditional public schools to fund charters, a seeming experiment gone awry? Why do we allow one entity that is accountable and has governance conveyed from the voters in each community and allow the other to avoid the same transparency and accountability?”

As a former resident of West Virginia and a school administrator in West Virginia and Ohio, it is my hope that the citizens of the Mountain State might learn from the mistakes of Ohio, which bears the distinction of having a refuse pile containing the wreckage of nearly 300 closed charter schools, some of which received funding but never opened, emitting a rancid, overpowering odor, a byproduct of bad public policy.

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And speaking about waste, Ohio has spent more than $4 billion on the charter school experiment so far, an exercise that is hell-bent on using public funds for private purposes while skirting transparency and accountability requirements.

All of this happened in the name of deregulation and choice, as ideologues within the Legislature peddle the snake oil that says school privatization, which comes with less accountability, transparency and state oversight, is preferable to public education.

A public system is where the residents own their schools, have oversight through an elected county board of education and have not outsourced them to privateers, including some charter management companies, like K12 Inc., which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. (K12 Inc. Symbol — LRN, Trading at $29.71 per share on July 7.)

Are West Virginians, exploited for generations by energy companies, in favor of selling off their public schools?

There’s still time to amend this new charter school law or rescind it, before the first under-regulated and less accountable charter school opens. For when the subject is charter schools and the expenditure of public funds for private purposes, the focus needs to be about accounting — and accountability.

And did we say anything about local control? National charter school chains and management companies are not evidence of local control.

So the question remains: Will this tale be about your public schools or that of a private entity? If nothing else is done to correct the current situation featuring contradictions, confusion and conflicts of interest that are inherent in the sad history of charters, we can expect a slow-motion train wreck in West Virginia.

Count on it.

Denis D. Smith is a former Putnam County Schools administrator and a retired consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He lives in Westerville, Ohio.

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