State Ed. officials say they’re not in the charter schools loop

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State Ed. officials say they’re not in the charter schools loop
By Samuel Speciale, Charleston Daily Mail

Debate over a bill that would authorize county school boards to form charter schools in West Virginia became heated Thursday when Department of Education officials were asked to explain their involvement in the drafting process, or the lack thereof.

State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, invited department officials and state Board of Education President Gayle Manchin to speak Thursday at a Senate Education Committee meeting, where the bill was being discussed, to make a point: School officials who will be responsible for carrying out the provisions in the bill have had little input.

The bill, which was introduced last month by Republicans in the Senate, would make West Virginia the 43rd state to allow public charter schools. Republicans introduced the same bill in the House of Delegates.

Unger said the fact that school officials haven’t been consulted in the three weeks since the bill’s introduction is concerning.

“It’s reckless,” he said.

Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, the bill’s lead sponsor and education committee chairman, defended the bill by saying his staff have communicated with department officials even if he hasn’t spoken directly with Manchin or state Superintendent Michael Martirano.

Sypolt said he has asked for Martirano’s advice on the bill, though the two have yet to have a formal meeting.

“I welcome his input,” Sypolt said. “So, it’s not true to say that there haven’t been any interactions.”

When asked if the Department of Education was involved with the bill, spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said legislators have been provided with information.

While there may have been conversations between the Legislature and the department, Unger is particularly upset that school officials feel left out.

“Clearly, the department and board haven’t been consulted,” Unger told the Daily Mail after the meeting. He went on to say that the state School Board Association, county school boards and county superintendents also haven’t been included in the discussions.

“If that’s not a breakdown of the process, then I don’t know what is,” he said.

During the meeting, Unger asked Sarah Stewart, Martirano’s newly hired legislative liaison, to describe the department’s inclusion in drafting the bill.

“There have been no in-depth conversations with the Legislature,” she said, adding the department has had no involvement or input.

“Wow,” Unger said, trailing off. “I don’t think I need to say anything else.”

Unger later turned to Manchin and asked if she or other board members had any conversations with the senators who sponsored the bill.

”We have had no input,” she said. “We have concerns about that.”

Manchin said if she had been asked, she would have told legislators that drafting new school board policies could do much of what their bill proposes. She added that school innovation zones, which were approved by the Legislature last year, already give some of the additional support and flexibility charter schools would receive.

“We have (local school improvement councils) that come to us asking for waivers to policy,” she said. “We’re already doing this and several schools are innovating outside guidelines.”

While a public school with an innovation designation is permitted to bypass policy or code to enhance student achievement, they seldom have the amount of flexibility charter schools receive.

A charter school, on the other hand, is publicly funded but privately operated and free from certain state and local regulations. While they have the freedom to set their own hiring policies, create a calendar and adopt a curriculum, they must still follow state-approved academic standards.

The schools, while supported by many for their success in improving student achievement in large urban districts around the country, are strongly opposed by teachers unions.

Both the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia American Federation of Teachers, the state’s two teachers unions, oppose the bill. Representatives of those groups have said charter schools tend to be exclusive and favor privileged students who post better test scores.

While teachers unions have been vocal about their opposition to charter schools, the department and board of education have been mum.

Sen. Daniel Hall, R-Wyoming, asked Manchin on Thursday if board members have collectively taken a position on charter schools.

Manchin’s response didn’t indicate a position one way or another.

“We are perfectly willing to support public education in West Virginia,” Manchin said. “If this were to go through, we’ll work with it.”

She went on to say the board supports new and innovative initiatives, but added that “there has to be guidelines and policies.”

Other senators questioned whether or not charter schools would be able to address the issue of low achievement in West Virginia, considering a majority of students lack support systems at home.

“We have so many problems in this state we need to address, and we already have our hands full providing equity,” Manchin said.

While a national report card grading the performances of state school systems gave West Virginia high-marks for being an equitable spender when it comes to low-income students in poorer districts, a main concern of those who oppose the bill is that charters would create an imbalance in public education spending.

Because no new dollars would be allocated to create charter schools — unless legislators were to change that as well — funding would be pulled from local school systems that are already strapped for cash. Manchin said federal and state funding is based on enrollment and that “the money follows the student.”

While Democratic members of the committee have concerns with the bill — Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said he doesn’t see how charter schools would benefit students — Unger fears Republicans, who control both houses, will just push the legislation through.

Sypolt has delayed advancing the bill until amendments are introduced next week, but Unger said that’s not enough time to fix its fundamental flaws.

“A weekend isn’t enough time to bring everyone in,” he said. “It’s unreasonable to think this’ll be ready.”