Improving West Virginia’s public schools

Charter schools have become the bogeyman of public school improvement in West Virginia. Their opponents, including the three unions representing many school employees, warn of dire consequences if legislators allow them in our state. Charters will siphon off funds needed by public schools, insist critics.

Opposition to charters, dramatized in a two-day strike by many school employees earlier this year, almost single-handedly killed the “omnibus” education bill proposed in the state Senate. With its demise went many desirable proposals that, beyond any reasonable doubt, would have been good for public education.

Now, charters are back. They are part of the Student Success Act — also a catch-all education bill — state senators will consider during a special session on Saturday. Leaders of the three unions are calling on their members to rally at the Capitol that day, with opposition to charters probably high on their agenda.

But this time is different. As Senate President Mitch Carmichael has explained, the new charter school plan is not the same as what was shot down in February and March.

Provisions of the new bill provide for charter schools in counties where local boards of education agree to them. Only one exception to that rule is stipulated: Charters could be established in a county, regardless of whether the local board goes along, if they are to be established by either the state Board of Education or a public college or university.

As Carmichael, R-Jackson, has noted, it is highly unlikely the state board would open a charter school in a county where the local board objects.

Few institutions of higher learning would do that, either. And if a major college or university with a teacher preparation program has good ideas for a charter, why not try them?

Condemning charter schools “on principal” — which seems to be the unions’ position — is not wise. A few of them could spur innovations that, in the long run, would help public schools.

What will happen in Charleston today is unclear. Specifically, there is a question as to whether the Senate’s 14 Democrat lawmakers will go along with the 20-member Republican majority on charters.

How the House of Delegates, planning its own special session to begin later in the month, will react also is unclear.

But killing a public education improvement bill solely because of the watered-down charter school provision would be a disservice to West Virginians.

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