Bill to allow charter schools passes Senate

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Bill to allow charter schools passes Senate
By Joel Ebert, Capitol Bureau

 After several days worth of delays, the state Senate has passed legislation that would permit the formation of a charter schools system in West Virginia on Monday.

Following more than an hour and half worth of discussion, the measure passed with an 18-16 vote, which once again fell along party lines. As several Democrats attempted to poke holes in the legislation, which has gone through significant discussion and alteration since the bill was initially introduced on the first day of the session, Republicans argued for its necessity.

Despite initially supporting an amendment, Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, sided with the minority party, speaking and voting in opposition to the bill.

 Plymale, who served as the chamber’s education chairman last year, said that while he is not necessarily against the concept of charter schools, the bill still was incomplete. “I don’t think this bill gets us where we need it to,” he said, while adding he reluctantly opposed the bill.

Hearkening back to a point he tried to prove when the bill was discussed in the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, asked Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, who sponsored the bill, if the creation of charter schools would mean less funding for public schools. Sypolt acknowledged that would be true, given that the current funding formula is based on student enrollment.

Sen. William Laird, D-Fayette, called the charter school system fundamentally flawed and one that has failed throughout the country. Laird, who rarely speaks on the Senate floor, was clearly passionate about the subject and offered a lengthy speech.

“The key to true education reform is to let our teachers teach,” he said. Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, spent a significant amount of time pointing to instances that have occurred throughout the country in which individuals from charter schools were found guilty of stealing money. “I will not play a part in this process in pushing this legislation,” he concluded.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, posed the final line of questions from Democrats, when he tried to point out that the charter school system would take away good teachers, leaving students in public schools at an unnecessary disadvantage.

Unger said the bill would create a lottery system “where some kids are going to win and some kids are going to lose.”

Unger also tried to highlight other flaws in the bill by making the point that the current draft of the bill does not require charter schools to provide any transportation to students. “A vote for this bill is basically gambling or gaming our children’s education,” he said.

Sen. Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, said the public education model in rural West Virginia does not work. He called for support of the bill that espouses a new educational system. The bill allows for the creation of two charter schools each year for the first five years.

The bill’s passage is a step toward putting West Virginia in line with the majority of states in the country. Only eight states, including West Virginia, do not allow charter schools.

Acknowledging the bill is not perfect, Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, said there has not been one perfect piece of legislation this year.

“This bill is an opportunity to try something different,” he said. Looking across the aisle, Gaunch asked Democrats for their plan to fix the state’s education woes. Sen. Kent Leonhardt, R-Monongalia, who said his granddaughter was the product of a charter school in another state, called the bill a starting point.

Sypolt closed the discussion on the bill, posing many rhetorical questions. “Do we want more bureaucracy or more flexibility?” he asked. “Do we want state control or local control?”

After the bill passed, several lawmakers offered congratulatory handshakes to Sypolt, who clearly was elated with the outcome. Despite the bill’s passage through the Senate, it will likely go through significant debate and discussion as it now heads to the House of Delegates.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, after the Senate’s vote. “When party politics go above the outcry of what constituents want, it’s a sad day.”

Lee said it makes no sense that Republicans would advance legislation that most people don’t support. Instead, he said the majority party is working to serve the interests of others.

“That’s what the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce wants and that’s what the national charter school people want,” he said.

But Lee acknowledged the debate over charter schools is not over. “There’s too many things in the bill that are problem areas,” he said, noting that he would seek to make changes to the already lengthy bill.