WV GOP leaders plan to again push charter schools, vouchers in special session

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By Ryan Quinn, Charleston Gazette-Mail

On Thursday, Gov. Jim Justice said he supports “two or three pilot charter schools” in West Virginia.

Earlier that day, state Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, reiterated his support for both charter schools and education savings accounts (ESAs) in a letter he sent to the Gazette-Mail for publication.

On Tuesday, Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said the upcoming special legislative session on education will include “something” on charter schools and ESAs. ESAs give parents public money to provide their kids alternatives to public school, like private schooling and homeschooling.

Also Tuesday, House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said on the MetroNews Talkline radio program that he voted for “school choice” provisions before, and “I’ll vote for them again.”

His House Education Committee chairman, Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison, resigned after having a relationship with a legislative intern, and Hanshaw has yet to name a replacement.

These legislative leaders have expressed differences in what flavors of charter schools or non-public school vouchers they support. But they’re all calling for some type.

Meanwhile, state Board of Education President Dave Perry, a Democrat whom Justice appointed when Justice was a Democrat, has said he may support charter schools and ESAs, provided funding for public schools is protected.

A state school board committee that now includes the Republican House and Senate education and finance committee chairs meets 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Morgan County school system’s central office, 247 Harrison Avenue in Berkeley Springs. Perry said a U.S. Education Department representative will be there to discuss charter schools.

Public school worker opposition

During the regular legislative session that ended in March, Republican leaders put charter schools and ESAs into a single bill (Senate Bill 451) that also included pay raises for public school workers and other public school funding increases, such as for more social workers and counselors.

The Republican-controlled House amended the Republican-controlled Senate’s version of that bill, which was dubbed the “omnibus education bill,” to completely remove ESAs and cap the allowed number of charter schools statewide at two.

The bill headed back to the Senate, where senators then put ESAs back in, raised the number of allowed charter schools to seven and removed other House-imposed restrictions on their creation. The Senate then sent the bill back to the House.

That triggered West Virginia’s second statewide public school workers strike in as many years. The House killed the Senate’s newly amended version of the omnibus bill on the first day of that two-day strike.

Justice later called the special session on education, which could begin later this month.

The state leaders of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association unions are calling for neither charter schools nor vouchers.

They said they’ve heard little support for those ideas during the education forums that followed the end of this year’s regular legislative session.

Fred Albert, the AFT-WV president, said he’d be OK if the special session never happens at all.

“That would be fine, I think, for most people,” he said. “Because what we’re skeptical about is, were they really listening to us during these listening forums?”

Dale Lee, the WVEA president, said his union is still compiling data it received from its education forums and its surveys, and he noted the state Department of Education has yet to release its report on its series of forums and surveys.

“I don’t know how you say it’s important to go listen to your constituents and then have a preconceived notion before you get the report,” Lee said of legislative leaders.

Senate Democrats also hosted a series of forums, as did some Senate Republicans. Carmichael’s letter says he’s heard support during forums for “more options in our current education delivery system.”

ESAs have less support

Regarding ESAs, Justice said during a Thursday news conference that, “All I’m going to say is, surely, to the Lord above, we’re not going to lay on my desk the education savings accounts.”

He also asked, “Why in the world would we need to go sandpaper a lion’s ass?”

Rucker, the Senate Education chairwoman, said lawmakers are “still gathering input on what people would like to see, so I can’t say anything really has been rolled out.”

Regardless, she said charter schools and ESAs of some form would be included in the special session.

“Obviously, there’s disagreement in the House and Senate and also from the governor, and we are trying to get a cohesive idea,” Rucker said.

On Tuesday, before Justice’s more recent comments on ESAs, Rucker said, “If I remember, what [Justice] said about ESAs is that he wasn’t sure what they were for, so I think there’s maybe some, um, you know, discussion we need to have with him to get him to understand what their purpose is. Some folks, they misinterpret ESAs as vouchers, and they are two different things.”

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, including by using the dollars to purchase textbooks and computers.

The version proposed during this year’s regular session even allowed parents to bank the money each year and pay their child’s college costs with it.

ESA students, however, wouldn’t be allowed to be in public school full-time.

As of the regular legislative session, no peer-reviewed research existed on whether ESAs improve student learning. And researchers disagree on the impact of pure private-school voucher programs.

Only a few states have ESA programs.

On Tuesday, Talkline host Hoppy Kercheval teed up Hanshaw’s appearance on his radio show by saying ESAs are “extremely controversial” and “there is maybe an alternative, there is maybe a way forward that would give more school choice but not be like ESAs, and it’s called education scholarships.”

Kercheval proceeded to describe a program in which people and businesses could reduce their tax liability by donating to public and private schools, and in which private schools could use the money to give students scholarships.

“I’ve only just begun to learn about this, Hoppy,” said Hanshaw. “It seems to be an interesting compromise because it achieves the objectives of providing some additional options for school choice for those parents and students who believe that that choice is necessary for their students, and it also does so in a way that doesn’t impact the bottom line for public education funding.”

Hanshaw said he’s trying to look at related draft legislation now.

Many school workers during last year’s strike 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.

Charter schools again a target

The charter schools that Senate Republicans originally proposed during the regular session would’ve been allowed to operate outside the control of county boards of education.

Governing boards, which would be separate from county school boards and could be unelected, would lead charter schools, which could also hire private companies to run their operations.

Justice gave conflicting answers Thursday about whether he supported allowing county school boards to stop a charter school from opening in their county.

He said “if you go down a path that lets the counties make the decisions” regarding charter schools, they could end up making decisions for charter schools on numerous things, such as employee pay and bus routes.

But Justice then said of allowing counties to block charter schools that, “I think that’s probably fair, because if the county didn’t want it, you know, there are counties that probably do want them.”

He said he didn’t know where the charter schools would be set up.

“I think there’s talk of Morgantown, maybe, Huntington,” Justice said.

Brian Abraham, Justice’s general counsel, said there were some initial related conversations regarding West Virginia University and Marshall University.

“I don’t know if anybody said, ‘It’s gonna be here,’ ” Abraham said. “But what we kind of heard was maybe a good way to start these are kind of teaming them up with the universities and, you know, having them come up with the curriculum and what the school looks like.”

Hanshaw said on MetroNews that he’ll continue to support both charter schools and the public school system Innovation Zones that are already allowed through state law. He said what works best in a community is not really for him to say.

“I think that’s for local communities and local school districts to decide,” he said.

Jay O’Neal, a Stonewall Jackson Middle teacher and founder of the Facebook group that has helped organize school workers over the past two years, said, “It’s kind of incredible that they’re going to push forward with something that failed in February that no one wanted then.”

But O’Neal said he’s not surprised.

“For years, seriously, we tried to tell them, ‘Hey, PEIA is a big problem, we’re having cuts every year and our premiums and deductibles are going up,’ and they didn’t really hear us until we walked out,” he said.

“There’s starting to be a pattern of them not listening to public employees, and specifically education employees,” he said.