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WV Ed Dept. forum report recommends charter school regulation, no vouchers

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By Ryan Quinn, Charleston Gazette-Mail

The West Virginia Department of Education is recommending no education savings account vouchers and, if charter schools are legalized, banning for-profit and virtual ones.

The department released those recommendations Tuesday in a report, available online at wvde.us/edvoices. Neither vouchers nor charter schools made the department’s four “top priorities,” which are:

  • “provide a pay raise to all school employees”
  • “increase funding for social emotional supports with local flexibility”
  • “incentivize high-performing schools by providing additional flexibility,” and,
  • “fund a supplement to strengthen teachers’ skills in shortage areas with an initial focus on math.”

Department officials said the report was informed by several online surveys and eight public forums they hosted across the state to gather input for what should, and shouldn’t, be done in the upcoming special legislative session on education. The report notes how respondents felt about various subjects.

“Those are the department’s recommendations,” state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine said Tuesday. “But the process is, we collected the data, we took a look at the strategies that were recommended and suggested, filtered them through strong research-based practice that had promise, and thus came out the recommendations.”

Paine said the department was “proud to make those judgments because we are the education experts in this state, we know what will improve education.”

The report says there were about 1,600 forum attendees plus 2,600 comment cards received at those forums — there were different cards to comment on different groups of education topics, like “school choice and innovation,” at the forums.

The report also says there were 17,000 respondents to the various online surveys, which students, teachers and other residents could answer.

Paine said the survey and forum attendee numbers may include duplicate individuals who responded through both means.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, who said he still supports pushing the ESA vouchers, said he was pleased with the outreach effort but disappointed in the number of individuals who responded.

“It would be tough to draw conclusions from such a small sampling, a nonscientific sampling,” he said. “It’s not like you’re calling certain people in a pool.”

Carmichael said there’s no report coming from the separate education forums Senate Republicans initiated. With Senate Democrats also hosting forums, alongside other groups, it was unclear Tuesday whether any group will produce a report as detailed as, or more detailed than, the department’s.

Regardless of the department’s number of responses, Carmichael said themes were consistent among department and non-department forums. He said he attended four forums in the counties he represents plus a couple of the department’s forums and one hosted by the West Virginia Education Association union.

“Every one of these you could have, frankly, drawn the report from the very first one,” Carmichael said. “They were very common themes: increased compensation for teachers, more respect ... the wraparound services, the school flexibility, less oversight and regulation, allowing teachers to do their jobs, and there were those who were absolutely advocating on behalf of school choice.”

The report says “participants voiced overwhelming support for increasing the number of support personnel to address the needs of students who are facing trauma or other issues.” Such personnel could include social workers, psychologists and counselors.

“They see this as a way to allow teachers more time for instruction,” the report says. “Almost all (99%) of the 607 comment card respondents [on that issue] strongly (88%) or somewhat (11%) agreed with funding more student support personnel positions. Eight in ten (81%) Education Survey for Family and Community respondents viewed additional student support personnel as a worthwhile investment, which ranked third among all proposals. Educators ranked additional support personnel as their favorite proposal, with 40% putting it in their top three.”

The report says “participants across the spectrum, including parents, were opposed to education savings accounts. 88% of 695 comment card respondents disagreed with this proposal. Only 1% of educators ranked it in their top three proposals.”

ESAs are vouchers, but instead of just providing parents public money to send their children to religious and other private schools, parents can use the money to provide tutoring, homeschooling and online schooling. They could, for example, use the money to purchase textbooks and computers.

Carmichael noted Senate Republicans’ last proposal for these vouchers was to give them just to special needs students and bullying victims.

“I don’t see how a person of good conscience could vote against helping a special needs student with additional resources,” he said.

The program could lead to such students having fewer resources. The program Senate Republicans pushed would’ve only provided ESA students $3,500 per year.

“It was also noted,” the department’s report says, “that $3,500 is generally insufficient to send students to a nonpublic school, and thus ESAs could be used as a subsidy for high-income families who can pay the difference between this amount and private school tuition.”

Of charter schools, the report says “of 690 comment card respondents, 88% disagreed with creating charter schools. Less than one in ten (6%) strongly agree with the proposal.”

“We learned a lot from those ideas,” Paine said of the survey and forum input. “We have three researchers upstairs [at the department], so we asked them to take a look at those ideas to make sure that they had merit from the research.”

“Charter schools, for example, is the one that probably has the least amount of research for success,” he said. “But there’s so much interest in the state, so here’s a judgment call we made: Let’s go ahead and give it a try, let’s get behind a couple of charters and let’s learn from them. If there seems to be so much interest in this, let’s not back away from that. You know I’ve heard the governor say two or three [charter] schools, and I support that — or wherever we land. I just want to make sure that we have a very controlled environment because we’re talking about kids’ lives in those schools.”

The report doesn’t outright recommend for or against charter schools.

Instead, it says that “if a limited number of charter schools are authorized,” the state should, among other things:

  • “Place oversight/authorization responsibility with the West Virginia Board of Education and local boards of education”
  • “Prohibit for-profit schools and management companies, and virtual charter schools”
  • “Develop minimum level of qualifications for charter school educators”

Regarding the ESA vouchers, the report recommends “do not implement ESAs due to public concerns over fraud, lack of accountability and concentration of benefits to higher-income families.”

However, the report says “participants suggested that tax incentives may be more palatable.” It doesn’t specify how many, or what percentage of, participants suggested that.

House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, has expressed support for a possible alternative to ESA vouchers that could give students private school scholarships funded by donations that individuals and businesses could make to reduce their tax liability.

Paine noted U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has backed giving tax credits to companies that donate money to send children to private schools.

“It’s still a bit controversial,” Paine said. “But I think it’s a much more palatable solution to education savings accounts, provided that the amount of dollars that go into the school aid funding formula are not reduced.”

Many public school workers, during their strike last year, chanted in favor of instead raising taxes on the natural gas industry to fund education — in that case, specifically to prevent further cuts to workers’ Public Employees Insurance Agency health coverage.

The state Legislature didn’t comply, and, this year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers approved cutting the severance tax on steam coal, costing $60 million annually in revenue. Lawmakers also provided coal companies 35 percent tax credits for the cost of new equipment and machinery if they open or expand mining operations.