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Charter schools expansion bill passes House even as Democrats say it’s rushed

The Republican-dominated House of Delegates overwhelmingly passed a bill expanding the emerging charter school system in West Virginia.

Joe Ellington

“I would urge that we pass this bill and get this moving,” House Education Chairman Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, said just prior to a 66-32 passage vote.

House Bill 2012 now goes to the state Senate, where the Republican majority has enthusiastically embraced “school choice” measures the past several years.

Charter schools would be part of the state’s public education system and would be given greater latitude in exchange for the possibility of losing their right to operate if they fail.

Two years ago, West Virginia legislators passed a bill making many changes to the state’s education system, including the allowance of charter schools. Teachers unions went on a statewide strike focused on the charter schools provision. After extended disagreement about the details of the bill, lawmakers finally passed it during a special session.

By comparison, this bill flew toward House passage at the very beginning of the regular session.

The bill would increase the number that could be approved in a three-year period from three to 10. And it would lay the groundwork for charter schools that would operate virtually.

Right now, county school boards may authorize a charter school. This bill would add a West Virginia Professional Charter School Board as an authorizer.

Applicants with a rejected charter proposal have 30 days after that to appeal to the state Board of Education.

Because Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, they can push the bill through quickly since they have made it a priority.

With the exception of Ellington, who led discussion and answered questions, Republican delegates made almost no speeches in favor of the bill’s passage today. They just quietly voted in favor of it when the time came.

Democrats, on the other hand, rolled out a litany of questions and concerns about the bill, including its fiscal effects on state and local government, what transportation and food would be available for students, whether the virtual option would be attainable for students with limited internet access and what would happen if concerns are raised about the way a school is operating.

Right before consideration of the bill, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers issued a statement questioning West Virginia’s provisions.

“House Bill 2012, as currently written, allows public schools to exclude students with special needs,” the organization wrote. “That’s inequitable, egregious, and goes against the promise of public schools.

“Pair that with a lack of strong governance measures, including the inability to close schools with severe financial mismanagement or requiring enrollment caps tied to academic performance for virtual schools, this bill will upend the promise of public charter schools in West Virginia.”

Sean Hornbuckle

Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, warned Republicans that they might regret their haste.

“I’m going to caution you not to be the dog that caught the car,” said Hornbuckle, the lead Democrat on the House Education Committee.

“Not taking the time to enhance the bill, making it the best product for all. I encourage you to slow down. Be a part of that radical middle. That’s where America’s at.”

No charter school has yet been approved in West Virginia. An application was submitted in Monongalia and Preston counties but rejected last fall.

Cody Thompson

Delegate Cody Thompson, D-Randolph, asked what’s the rush if the concept has yet to take off at all.

“We’re going to increase the amount of charter schools allowed in this state to 10. We currently have 0 with one applicant,” Thompson said. “It makes no sense.”

Lisa Zukoff

Delegate Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, has asked several times about access to transportation for charter school students. The response was that schools in the public system — as charter schools would be — provide transportation for students who live more than two miles away.

But Zukoff also wondered about other resources like broadband access that might narrow the number of students who could opt for a virtual charter school.

“How many little Johnnies and Sallies around West Virginia are we going to leave out of this system?” she asked.

Larry Rowe

Democrats also focused on fiscal questions. Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, asked why the bill was moving so quickly without a fiscal note to examine its impacts. And Rowe asked how a funding formula would affect local school systems.

The response, provided by Ellington, is that 10 percent of state funding per pupil stays with county; 90 percent of state funding follows student to the charter.

Ellington, in his closing remarks, responded to some of the criticisms. On infrastructure, for example, he said lawmakers have been working for years to improve broadband access — but acknowledged no perfect system is close at hand.

He also acknowledged that not every student would benefit from charter schools. But he endorsed them as an option for families who believe their young students could benefit.

“I guess everyone who wants to go should be able to apply to try to go,” Ellington said.