Senate Education Committee approves charter schools bill

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Senate Education Committee approves charter schools bill
By Ryan Quinn, Staff writer. Charleston Gazette

The West Virginia Senate Education Committee finally approved a charter schools bill Tuesday night, moving past an issue that appeared on its agenda a dozen times.

All seven Republicans present voted for accepting a version of the bill in committee, and all five Democrats voted against. The body then passed Senate Bill 14 onto the Senate Finance Committee, which will consider it before it goes to the full Senate.

The committee had devoted significant time to the bill, which would allow charters in West Virginia, despite research suggesting charters overall serve students in other states neither better nor worse than traditional public schools, and despite opposition from teacher unions.

Since the body’s initial discussion on charters in late January, agendas have listed the issue 11 times. Though some of these meetings may have run out of time before getting to the issue, others have been spent exclusively on charters.

The pace had recently quickened, with three meetings last week, two Monday and three Tuesday. By Tuesday evening, committee Vice-Chairwoman Donna Boley, a Pleasants County Republican whose bill to repeal Common Core hasn’t been discussed in committee yet, was urging legislators to hurry up. Former Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, pushed for charters in 2010.

But the issue has seen renewed interest under the current Republican-controlled Legislature, with both Education Committee Chairman Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, and Senate President Bill Cole sponsoring the legislation.

Sypolt said he’s not basing his support for charters on any particular study, but on complaints he’s heard from teachers and parents about bureaucracy.

“It’s been a common theme among parents, school room teachers, county boards of education and county administrators, that the top down structure of education seems to stifle them and give them very little latitude,” he said.

Charters would be freed from many state and county laws and policies, including those that protect union-valued rights to things like planning periods and lunches during which they don’t have to be on cafeteria supervision duty. Sypolt said charters could decide to keep these rights or remove them.

Democratic senators Mike Romano and John Unger proposed changes to the bill before passage.

Unger argued that only students with attentive parents would submit applications for their children to attend charter schools, creating an exodus of them and their kids from traditional public schools. He persuaded the committee to pass an amendment putting all kids, whether they apply or not, in the random lotteries that are used to determine who can attend charters that can’t enroll all the students who wish to. Parents would now have to choose to opt out of the lottery.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said he was still disappointed the bill passed without further amendments.

“They have their mind set, they have their agenda set, and it’s obvious that they’re taking their lead from the National Alliance for [Public] Charter Schools,” he said.

During the committee’s initial discussion in January, Lisa Grover, senior director for state advocacy for that organization, cited 2009 and 2013 reports from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes to make the case that charters’ outcomes are improving.

These reports from CREDO are widely referenced. The 2009 one, which many cite as the first national assessment of charter performance, analyzed charters in 15 states and Washington, D.C. — a selection that then represented 70 percent of charter students nationwide.

It found that 17 percent of charters educated their students better than normal public schools educated similar students. About half of charter schools educated students the same and about 37 percent educated students worse.

The study showed charter schools produced better academic growth for poor students than traditional public schools, but worse growth for blacks and Hispanics — although English language learners fared better in charters.

Citing an 80 percent increase in charter enrollment since its 2009 report — though the number was still only 4 percent of total U.S. enrollment — CREDO released an update in 2013. The update included 25 states plus D.C. and a separate analysis of New York City to represent 95 percent of all U.S. charter students.

The 2013 update stated that charter schools now performed slightly better than normal schools, giving kids the equivalent of eight additional days of learning in reading and the same days of learning in math.

In a column last year in Education Week, Margaret Raymond, CREDO’s director, wrote that “several studies over the past five years have recognized that, like other public schools, charter schools vary in their ability to move student learning forward.”

She said “the accumulating evidence does little to resolve the performance discussion, but this has less to do with inconclusive findings than from differences in how the discussions are framed.”

In a 2013 column in The Washington Post, professor Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder, which reviewed the CREDO studies, said CREDO’s 2013 report showed charter enrollment is responsible for less than one hundredth of 1 percent of the variation in reading test scores.

In an interview Tuesday, Welner told the Gazette the CREDO research is reputable and illustrates what a “large body” of research shows: charters and traditional public schools see little overall difference in test scores.

He said there will always be debate about which of the three largest education “sectors” — traditional public schools, charters and Catholic schools — is best, but most serious research is now analyzing how to make schools in each sector excel. In each sector, some schools are worse than schools in other sectors, some are better, and most are about the same, Welner said.

But he said there are concerns about charters beyond standardized testing, including that they may create inefficiencies in states with stable or declining student enrollment.

Overall enrollment is dropping in West Virginia. If SB 14 becomes law, non-community organizations like nonprofits and “public organizations” would be allowed to apply to county school boards to create charters. Parents, teachers, school administrators and residents also would have that right.

For the first five years, only two charters a year could be approved statewide. Those charter proposals denied by a school board could appeal to a higher body established by the bill. New charter schools could be built, or existing traditional public schools could be converted to charters.

Charters would be given “autonomy over key decisions, including, but not limited to, decisions concerning finance, personnel, scheduling, curriculum and instruction.”

Charter students would be required to take the regular statewide standardized tests, and would be generally required to meet or exceed traditional public school students’ performance on them.

Charters would also be free from prevailing wage laws.