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Senate committee accepts Democratic changes to charter school bill

Photo Courtesy/WV Legislative Photography AMENDMENT — Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, explains his amendment to a bill expanding the public charter school pilot program.

CHARLESTON — A public charter school expansion bill from the House of Delegates was approved Tuesday by the Senate Education Committee after accepting an amendment from a Democratic senator to slow down how quickly the program ramps up.

House Bill 2012 was adopted by the committee on a voice vote Tuesday evening. The bill now heads to the full state Senate.

HB 2012 changes the maximum number of public charter schools in a three-year period from three to 10. The bill also allows for a statewide virtual charter school and allows counties to approve smaller virtual charter schools.

The committee approved in a 7-6 vote an amendment to the bill offered by Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison. The Romano amendment would keep the cap on the number of charter schools for the first three-year period ending July 1, 2023, to three public charter schools.

For the next two three-year periods, the cap would go up to 10 public charter schools.

The Romano amendment also capped the number of students who could participate in the statewide virtual public charter school to 1,500 for the first three years of the program, increasing to no more than 5 percent of statewide total student public school enrollment after the first three years. Under the current bill, statewide virtual public charter school enrollment is limited to 10 percent of total statewide student enrollment.

“I just think we’re taking a big step here,” Romano said. “You guys want these charter schools. You want virtual charter schools. I understand you’re going to get what you want. Let’s just be a little bit circumscribe. Let’s see if they’re successful. Let’s see if they work in West Virginia before we open them up and potentially take 12,000 students out of the public school system in a statewide virtual program.”

Senate Education Committee Vice Chairman Robert Karnes, R-Randolph, opposed the Romano amendment. Karnes said limiting the number of charters for the first three-year period could reduce the amount of federal funding the state could receive. The federal Charter Schools Program provides financial assistance to states for the planning, program design and initial implementation of charter schools.

“I believe this would limit our ability to access those federal funds if we were to limit them to three charter schools for some period of time,” Karnes said. “It may be that once the cap is lifted we can gain access to that money, but I see no reason why we would want to deliberately limit access to that money right out of the gate for some period of time.”

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said the purpose of expanding the public charter school pilot project with HB 2012 was to gain eligibility for CSP funding. Rucker said the state’s limited pilot program makes it ineligible for those dollars.

“The way they prioritize funding we would rise to the top because we are a new state that hasn’t had charters before,” Rucker said. “Why would we say ‘no’ to any dollars that could help that school be better and help our kids?”

Since the program was created in 2019 through House Bill 2006, no charter schools have been approved by county boards of education. An attempt by a group to create a public charter school serving the Monongalia and Preston County area was rejected by both county boards of education last year. The group filed suit against the two school boards in the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals earlier this month.

If the full state Senate approves of HB 2012, it would still need to return to the House of Delegates to approve the changes made to the bill by the Senate before heading to the desk of Gov. Jim Justice.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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