Charter schools bill sees scrutiny

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Charter schools bill sees scrutiny
By Joel Ebert, Charleston Daily Mail

The current draft of a bill that would allow for charter schools in West Virginia received some scrutiny during two Senate Education Committee meetings on Tuesday after it was discovered the proposed legislation could permit discrimination against special needs students and allow schools to set their own academic calendar.

The committee listened to testimony from five different speakers during two separate hearings before concluding the bill needed more work.

Eugenie Taylor, who was representing the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said charter schools would allow for more freedom in terms of education, which could subsequently benefit the state because outside investors would see progressive education laws as a reason to move to West Virginia.

“This traditional school model is not working for these kids,” Taylor said. “Let’s give the community the chance and choice to figure it out.”

Trying to dispel the notion that charter schools are only successful in urban environments, Taylor pointed to the presence of charter schools in Indiana, Kansas and Arkansas as a reason to be optimistic.

After the first committee hearing, Taylor said although the success of schools in other states is not a guarantee, it would work in West Virginia. She said, “If we don’t have the law, we don’t have the choice.”

The fact that West Virginia has taken so long to consider adding charter schools allows the state to look at the best practices used throughout the country, said Lisa Grover, senior director for state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

A total of 42 states and the District of Columbia have enacted charter school laws.

Grover said there is an increasing amount of evidence that suggests charter school students are among the top performers in terms of academic achievements.

But proponents of the states’ public education system said that’s because of a few different reasons.

Christine Campbell, president of West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said the current version of the charter school bill does not address students who need special education.

“Nationally, charter schools have a disturbing pattern of unequal treatment for special education students,” she said.

Campbell cited a Stanford University study of charter schools, which she said found special ed students are not often included in charter schools, which could explain why some schools have better academic achievements.

She also noted charter schools often are not required to provide transportation for students.

“If you are not required to accept special needs students, you’re not required to provide transportation to low-income children, this bill could consequently promote elite schools of upper-income children,” she said.

Campbell concluded by saying, “Everyone deserves a quality education. The best way to do that is to support our public schools.”

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, expressed concern over the fact that charter schools would be able to pay teachers whatever they wanted, which could create a disadvantage for the teachers in public schools.

During the second education meeting, Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, asked several questions of the speakers, including how the students were chosen.

Grover said the current version of the bill allows for an open enrollment system, which would let anyone interested in attending put their name on a list. If the number of those interested in attending exceeded the seats available, a lottery system would be employed. Romano said that could be problematic because it would create winners and losers in terms of educational opportunities.

Sen. Robert Beach, D-Monongalia, said he was especially concerned about the ability of charter schools to set their own classroom schedule as well as the possibility that special needs students could be disenfranchised under the current version of the bill.

Beach said the passage of Senate Bill 359 in 2013 ensured students received 180 days of instruction. But that wouldn’t be the case with charter schools under the proposed legislation.

“Why should they have a waiver on the whole process to get kids in school for 180 days?” he asked.

Although no specific action was taken on the charter schools bill, the Senate Education Committee plans to continue the conversation on charter schools when it meets again on Thursday. A second version of the bill is expected to be available, which Grover said will address some of the concerns discussed Tuesday.