West Virginia Senate passes public charter school expansion bill

State Sen. Bill Ihlenfeld speaks against a bill expanding a charter school pilot program in the state. (Photo Provided)

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Senate passed a bill Monday expanding the number of permitted charter schools in the state.

The state Senate passed House Bill 2012, relating to public charter schools, 19-14. The bill will need to return to the House to approve changes made to the bill before heading to Gov. Jim Justice’s desk for approval or veto.

HB 2012 changes the maximum number of public charter schools in a three-year period and allows for a statewide virtual charter school and smaller virtual charter schools at the county-level. Charters are public schools, but have more flexibility to try new ways to educate students.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said she has studied the idea of charter schools, looking at the 20 years of history and data about the effectiveness of charter schools. Rucker believes that HB 2012 avoids some of the mistake made by the 46 states that have charter schools.

“When a public charter school has mismanagement, doesn’t show student achievement, doesn’t perform, it closes,” Rucker said. “Fortunately for us we have 46 other states that have adopted public charter schools and have over 20 years of experience. We can learn from their experiences.”

An amendment to HB 2012 offered Friday by state Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, reversed changes made to the bill by the Senate Education Committee last week. The Sypolt amendment returned the allowed number of public charter schools in the first three-year period from three to 10. It also reversed a cap of 1,500 students for enrollment in a virtual charter school, returning the cap to 10 percent of statewide enrollment.

State Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, was the author of the amendments in committee limiting public charter schools to three and capping virtual charter school enrollment at 1,500. Romano attempted to amend the bill again Monday to require the state Board of Education to create rules requiring public charter schools to meet the same standards of student performance as public schools. The amendment failed 10-23.

During debate on HB 2013, Romano raised concerns that public charter schools could sap state and federal student funding from traditional public schools. Students who would attend a public charter would receive 90 percent of the average state per-pupil expenditure, while 10 percent of that funding would remain with the county Board of Education. Decreased enrollment in individual public schools could mean reductions in workforce at those schools.

“Why are we taking these risks with so many unknowns? Why are we taking these risks when we’ve never had a charter school? Now we’re going to have some,” Romano said. “Why not put some reasonable limits on these virtual and brick-and-mortal charter schools?”

State Sen. Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, accused the Republican majority of opening the doors for for-profit education service providers to come into the state to help set up charter schools in areas of the state that don’t need them. A failed amendment to HB 2012 would have required three of the public charter schools be located in underperforming school districts.

“If we are really going to help those who are pulling down our averages, then we need to reach out to them,” Ihlenfeld said. “It seems like we’re letting profit get in the way of student achievement.”

Charter schools have traditionally been opposed by state Democratic lawmakers and teacher unions since the public charter school pilot program was included in House Bill 206 in 2019. So far, only one charter school application was submitted — and denied — in 2020, with a lawsuit pending against Monongalia and Preston county boards of education by the applicants.

While it is unlikely the state would see 10 charter school applications within the three-year period, the Senate Education Committee learned last week that the number of allowed charters needed to increase for the state to become eligible for federal funding through the Charter Schools Program. CSP provides financial assistance to states for the planning, program design and initial implementation of charter schools.

In closing, Rucker said families should have as many options as possible when deciding how their children should be educated. Public charter schools would provide another choice for parents.

“In looking at other states … they’re offering a great option for those families who prefer that option,” Rucker said. “That’s the point: let the families choose what works best for them.”

According to the Center for Education Reform, which supports charter schools and education savings accounts, enrollment in charter schools nationally increased by 11 percent over the last four years, with enrollment increasing from 3 million in 2016 to 3.3 million in 2020.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com


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