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Bill for charter schools gets OK

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Bill for charter schools gets OK
By Joel Ebert, Charleston Daily Mail

A controversial charter school bill that was subjected to more than three hours of debate on Tuesday has finally been passed through a Senate Education Committee.

Meeting five times over the last two days, including three separate occasions on Tuesday, the committee approved numerous amendments to Senate Bill 14, which establishes a pathway for the creation of charter schools in West Virginia. Originally drafted as a 21-page document, the bill expanded to a 56-page committee substitute in the two-plus weeks the issue was discussed in the committee.

While there were several amendments brought forth on Tuesday, including one advanced by two Democrats pertaining to the enrollment process, and even more amendments and questions members of the minority party said they intended to bring forth, the committee ultimately passed the latest version of the bill. Frustrations boiled over when the education committee met during its third meeting.

Sens. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, and John Unger, D-Berkeley, made colorful pleas to add an amendment after voicing concern about the enrollment process for charter schools. Until it was amended, the bill would have required parents to opt in to a lottery system, which would take place if there are more students interested in attending a school than seats available.

Romano’s amendment, which was unanimously approved, would automatically enroll a student in such a lottery system. The concern, Unger said, was the lottery would create an unfair system.

Students with motivated and active parents would be able to enroll their students in a lottery system, while students without active parents would be left behind.

“What occurs is you’re not only taking the best teachers but you’re also taking motivated parents and then you have a wasteland that’s created over here (in public schools),” Unger said of the lottery system.

Romano’s amendment changed the lottery system to one that allows all students to be automatically enrolled, if one is necessary.

Another amendment was introduced by Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, to remove specific language pertaining to the allowance of multiple campuses for a charter school. Several lawmakers expressed concern about the language and the amendment was eventually agreed upon by the committee.

During discussion following the introduction of several amendments by Romano and Unger, the tension in the air was palpable. After Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, attempted to accept another round of amendments, Unger challenged the process.

After a brief consultation, Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, who serves as chairman of the committee, said, “We would like to get this finished up tonight and voted out of committee.”

Romano quickly replied, “I have some serious concerns about this. If the intent of the majority is to simply vote this out without considering any of the other amendments — I think there’s loopholes in this bill that you could drive a tractor trailer through and I think we should have the opportunity to amend that.”

Romano added, “I’m feeling like the process is being shortchanged. This is a major change in West Virginia.”

Boley said the committee needed to finish the bill in order to get to other items on the committee’s agenda and that other questions could be addressed in the Finance Committee, where the bill will now head.

Romano and Unger, who was only able to attend the evening meeting, as well as Beach, and Sens. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, and William Laird, D-Fayette, have all expressed concern about the bill throughout the past few weeks.

At one point questions were raised about the procedure that would take place if there were more applicants for the creation of a charter school than the bill allowed. The current draft of the bill allows for the creation of two charter schools a year for the next five years.

Romano also spent a significant amount of time during the afternoon meeting asking how regular public schools would be able to cope with the loss of funding from the creation of charter schools. Their creation would change the funding formula for county governments, which would result in a loss of funds for public schools.

 “Isn’t it inevitable that the public school system is going to suffer from the creation of the charter schools system?” Romano asked the committee’s legal counsel Hank Hager.

“When we create these charter schools, we are going to be draining off resources from our other schools.”

In a final attempt to amend the bill during the evening meeting, Romano tried to limit the number of charter schools to be implemented in the first four years of the program to just two.

Majority Leader Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, who largely remained silent during the committee’s discussion on charter schools, opposed Romano’s amendment saying, “ If we’re going to give this a try — and our education system — to move our state forward; to create the innovation that will inspire the public schools — let’s go into this with a great attitude. We’re going to do two per year and make this thing work.”

Romano’s amendment failed, resulting in a subsequent motion from Boley to agree to all the amendments that had been approved by the committee.

By the end of the meeting, several unanswered questions remained pertaining to the final version of the charter schools bill.

The bill contains no specific language that addresses conflicts of interests. It also does not discuss the possible methods of compensation for those serving on a public charter school board, which would be created as a result of the legislation.

Following the meeting, Romano said, “The majority decided the time is up. No more transparent government, no more debate — we’re just going to move forward and push it out the door.”

Summing up what transpired, Romano said, “What’s really getting lost in the debate here is the effect that these charter schools are going to have on our broader public school system. What we’ve really done is enabled the creation of elite schools that are going to get the elite teachers and the elite students and everybody else it’s just going to be too bad for.”

Despite Romano’s frustrations, Sypolt said the bill was given its due diligence after weeks of consideration. “We have worked this bill,” he said.

“All the members have had ample opportunity to bring things forward.”