Charter school advocates "perturbed"

Emily Schultz, director of state advocacy and policy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

Don't expect charter schools in the near future in West Virginia. 

In an interview this past week, an advocate at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said that West Virginia's law is too restrictive to encourage charter school development in the state. 

"I think it's pretty unlikely that y'all will have one anytime soon if you look at other states with this authorizing structure," said Emily Schultz, director of state advocacy and policy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. She added that there aren't many states with similar "authorizing structures," meaning ways charter schools can be approved.

In other states, various institutions could authorize a charter school, such as an independent board, the state school board, local school boards, or colleges and universities. Under West Virginia's law, only local school districts can authorize charter schools.

Meanwhile, state Superintendent Steven Paine said last week that the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is so displeased with West Virginia's law, they wouldn't provide assistance in designing the state's new charter school policy.

He said they're "a little bit perturbed."

During the 2019 legislative session, teachers unions and lawmakers battled over an omnibus education bill that included raises for teachers and more funding for rural school districts and school support workers alongside more controversial provisions, including one allowing for public money to go to private school expenses through "education savings accounts," and one allowing for charter schools to open in West Virginia.

Teachers unions argued that charter schools, which aren't subject to the same restrictions as traditional schools, would take money from schools already struggling to educate kids experiencing poverty, special needs and trauma induced by the opioid epidemic. Some lawmakers argued that schools are under-performing and need more flexibility. 

During the special session in June, lawmakers passed an omnibus education bill that allows for charter schools, but not education savings accounts. Under West Virginia's law, no more than three charter schools could open, and not before the 2021-2022 school year. An additional three could be opened after July 1, 2023.

Schultz said that other states typically have more than one authorizer – sometimes colleges and universities or state boards of education. Schultz, who had advocated for initial versions of the bill in West Virginia, had recommended that lawmakers give those who want to open a charter school an option to appeal local school districts' decisions to a higher-level institution, such as an independent commission or the state Board of Education, but that recommendation was ultimately rejected.

"It's a new function for local school boards and inherently, it takes a while to learn the role of an authorizer," Schultz said. "As an authorizer, you're not telling a school what to do or what policies to put in place. You're overseeing their outcomes, and that's just very different than what local school boards are traditionally set up to do.

"If you have one single authorizing pathway, there's no check and balance on that authorizer's work," she said.

She said that West Virginia is also less likely to have charter schools because of the cap, and because the state won't be eligible for federal funding for charter schools because states are more likely to receive that funding if they have multiple authorizers. 

"I think if folks in the state are interested in amending the law to kind of – to give West Virginia a better chance of receiving that funding, we're happy to help with that," she said. "In the meantime, I think the work needs to go on to implement the law you've got and we're happy to help as requested or as needed."

As for anyone interested in starting a charter school, Schultz said she'd refer them to "someone that was more familiar with the West Virginia context."

Meanwhile, Paine said the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools hadn't been interested in assisting the state Board of Education, which is charged with designing the charter school policy by January 2020. It will need to create instructions on how to apply and training for authorizers, among other responsibilities. 

Paine said he has known Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, for a good while, and had contacted that organization for assistance.

"They're less than enamored with the bill," he said. "We have a very watered-down charter schools bill, quite frankly."

He said he didn't think he "gained anything" from his conversation with them.

"They don't think it's going to work," he said.

In a brief interview, Paine said he hasn't heard any interest from local school districts about opening a charter school, although he noted it's early. He also expanded on his comments about the national alliance being displeased with West Virginia's law.

"They're used to dealing with private companies that try to make money off of charter schools," Paine said. "There are many diverse authorizers that are out there and they think the more the merrier."

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