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Foes speak against amendment stripping protections for LGBT students in charter schools

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Foes speak against amendment stripping protections for LGBT students in charter schools
By Samuel Speciale, Education reporter, Charleston Daily Mail

Charter schools were once again the subject of a legislative hearing on Tuesday as union leaders, teachers and other community members raised concerns over a state Senate bill that was amended to remove protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

When the bill passed the Senate last week, it prohibited discrimination against students based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but the House Education Committee stripped that provision during a late-night meeting Wednesday.

Delegates have defended the amendment, saying it makes the bill compliant with state and federal laws, which do not include real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity as classes protected from discrimination.

Andrew Schneider, director of the LGBT activist group Fairness West Virginia, has been a vocal critic of the amendment, and on Tuesday said the protection was removed under the guise of making the bill compliant with state code.

Fairness West Virginia and several other state organizations are demanding the bill’s original language protecting LGBT students be restored.

“The language in that bill when it passed the Senate wasn’t radical,” he said. “What is radical is that this language was taken out and our kids could be subject to discrimination based on their sexual orientation.” Schneider went on to say that all students in all schools should be free from bullying and harassment.

Several representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia also voiced their concerns with the amendment.

Cassie Burdyshaw, a policy director for ACLU West Virginia, said national surveys indicate that at least 75 percent of LGBT students say they are harassed in school. She said it wouldn’t be any different in a charter school.

While the state Board of Education has passed inclusive anti-discrimination policies that charter schools would be subject to, there are still concerns that students could be negatively screened during the enrollment process.

“There are other ways for LGBT students to be discriminated against,” Burdyshaw said.

The amendment wasn’t the only concern raised Tuesday.

Of the hearing’s 25 speakers, 13 were against the bill and how it could affect traditional public schools. The 12 who spoke in favor of making West Virginia the 43rd state to allow charter schools said the bill would give parents more say in their children’s education.

Like the hearing, the debate over charter schools in West Virginia seems to be split.

Many advocates for alternative education say charter schools would benefit West Virginia’s low-income families who are disenfranchised with the public education system but cannot afford to home-school or send their children to a private school. While charter schools are privately operated, they are publicly funded and tuition-free.

Others say freedom from state rules allows teachers to bypass regulatory red tape and be more innovative in the classroom.

While charter schools have seen success in improving student achievement in large urban districts around the country, some who oppose the bill are skeptical they will be as effective in West Virginia, which has very few inner-city schools. Some research even indicates charter school students in some districts do worse than their public school counterparts.

The state school board and Department of Education haven’t taken a strong stance for or against the legislation, but teachers unions have mounted a defense against the bill since it was introduced in January.

Christine Campbell and Dale Lee, state presidents of the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia Education association, respectively, have said charter schools would recruit the best teachers away from public schools, create a disparity in public education spending and set up exclusive schools for privileged students.

Some of those concerns have been addressed through the amendment process, but the unions still will not lend their support.

When asked if there are any amendments that would cause her to change her stance on the bill, Campbell shook her head.

“No, there isn’t,” she said, adding that opening the door for charter schools will create more problems than solutions.

The bill is still up for debate in the House Finance Committee, and before it can make it to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s desk, it must first be passed by the House and go back to Senate for approval before the session’s end on Saturday