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West Virginia Board of Education approves updated charter school rules

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Board of Education has approved updated rules for future charter schools in the state, but not without some reservations.

The board voted Wednesday to approve revisions to Policy 3300 setting rules for the state’s public charter school pilot project.

“Am I pleased about this? No. Am I 100% for charter schools? No,” said board President Miller Hall. “Is it what is best for kids? I don’t know.”

The West Virginia Legislature passed House Bill 2012 during the 2021 legislative session and signed into law by Gov. Jim Justice. The bill was built on the back of House Bill 206, an omnibus education bill passed during a contentious special session in 2019.

HB 2012 expanded the maximum number of public charter schools in a three-year period from three to 10 schools and allows for up to two statewide virtual charter schools and one county-level virtual charter school. County-level virtual charter school enrollment is capped at 10% of total county public school enrollment, while the statewide charter school enrollment cap is 5% of statewide headcount enrollment.

The bill also creates a new West Virginia Professional Charter School Board to act as an authorizer for charter school applications. The bill sets an annual deadline of Aug. 31 for charter school applications, though no charters would start until the following school year at the earliest.

Charter schools are public schools that receive state funding but are free from many of the regulations regular public school’s follow. Charter schools are often used to try new educational approaches. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 44 states and Washington, D.C. have charter schools.

The state Board of Education adopted rules for the public charter school pilot project in 2019, but the passage of HB 2012 required staff at the Department of Education to revise the rules to comply with changes made by the updated law.

According to Sarah Stewart, government affairs counsel for the state Department of Education, the department did not advocate for or against HB 2012, but officials did help advise lawmakers when crafting the legislation. Policy 3300 was put out for public comment more than 30 days ago, with the comment period closing Tuesday.

Board member Debra Sullivan, a former administrator for two Catholic schools in Kanawha County, is a known opponent of charter schools and the only board member who voted no. She put the blame squarely on lawmakers for saddling the board with implementing a charter school program none of them wanted.

“The Legislature did this without our involvement. We did not ask them to do a charter school policy or code,” Sullivan said.

“Under provisions of the proposed policy, full-time for-profit statewide virtual charter schools operated by national vendors would be permitted to operate,” Sullivan continued. “Do we really want to commercialize our public education and outsource our children?”

Tom Campbell, a former Democratic member of the House of Delegates from Greenbrier County, defended the Legislature and Gov. Jim Justice who signed both HB 206 and HB 2012.

“The Legislature has frequently enacted laws that places implementation on the board and the department. It’s not new,” Campbell said. “Some we ask for, some we don’t, so that’s not new. I do want to make a point that the Legislature and the Governor that enacted this were elected by the public with pretty large margins…that’s just fact.”

Opponents often accuse public charter schools of siphoning off resources and funding from regular

public schools as well as call into question educational outcomes of charter schools. In the case of virtual charter schools, opponents raise concerns about internet access in West Virginia. Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, has led the charge against charter school legislation over the last several years.

“There are still a number of questions that we have,” Lee said. “This is a tipping point. It’s a critical tipping point for us in West Virginia.”

The Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, a conservative think tank in West Virginia, advocated for public charter schools and other educational choice options, such as the Hope Scholarship education savings account program.

“Hope Scholarships and charter schools will give parents more ability to choose innovative education models that avoid state bureaucracy and best serve their children,” said Adam Kissel, a senior fellow at the Cardinal Institute. “Passing policies that comply with the law was the right next step.”

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

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