As WV public schools struggle, GOP leaders talk up other options

Ryan Quinn, Staff Writer

Though details of possible bills are vague, some Republicans are suggesting the GOP-controlled Legislature will again this year consider legislation that would support educational options outside of the traditional kindergarten-12th-grade public school system, like homeschooling, charter schooling and state-subsidized private schooling. The last of the three was featured at an interim meeting last month.

“There does seem to be considerable interest in expanding educational choice in West Virginia,” said Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson.
Espinosa, who will continue as the House Education Committee chairman in the upcoming legislative session, noted Friday that his committee members hadn’t yet been set, and he still wants time to speak with them and the broader GOP caucus about bill priorities.

Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio and the upcoming Senate majority leader, has expressed support for more “school choice” options, but he didn’t return the Gazette-Mail’s requests for more information last week on what, specifically, he wants.
President-elect Donald Trump has proposed a $20 billion program that would let low-income kids attend private schools.

Meanwhile, West Virginia’s public schools are seeing a greater decline in enrollment and state funding: state Department of Education data show this year’s statewide public school enrollment is 273,170, a drop of about 3,970 students from last school year.

That’s the largest one-year drop in about 15 years, although the establishment of the state’s pre-kindergarten program since 2002-03 might limit direct comparability over that time. The public school enrollment drop from the 2014-15 school year to last school year was about 2,760 students.

The state’s school-aid funding formula generally automatically drops funding for public school systems that lose enrollment.

Though the possible impacts on traditional public school funding are complex and could vary significantly depending on what kinds of laws the GOP actually pursues, public school employee union leaders said they’re concerned about such measures siphoning off resources needed to support existing public schools.

“I respect someone’s right to educate their child the way they choose,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association union. “But our constitution guarantees that every child in West Virginia have a free and public education — a free and public education. Our schools do a tremendous job, and taking more dollars away from them will have a huge negative impact.”

Concerns about fighting over a limited pot of money come after two consecutive years of mid-school-year state school-aid funding cuts. The cuts have totaled more than $11 million each year, which hasn’t happened since the early ’90s. Lawmakers are expected to have to figure out how to close a huge budget deficit in the upcoming session, which is expected to start in February.

And, if more money isn’t put toward the state’s Public Employees Insurance Agency health insurance, public employees, including teachers, will see benefit cuts.

Democratic Gov.-elect Jim Justice has suggested fixing the deficit by neither raising taxes nor cutting government spending, but by taking out a loan.

“I think he has a desire to do something about the health care issue for state employees and school employees,” said Christine Campbell, president of the state’s branch of the American Federation of Teachers. “But that’s the only person I’ve heard talking about looking at that issue and what we can do.”

The public schools employee union president expressed the need for better employee pay and wraparound services, such as health clinics that provide free services to kids.
“I hope the legislators that are coming into this new session and our new leadership and our new governor will really look at the whole child and the whole system and make sure that we really are trying to attract and retain highly qualified teachers, that we are providing wraparound services to the students, that we continue to make sure we have the service personnel, the aides and the people to support our special needs students,” she said. “All of those things have to be in place before you can look at any other option outside of the current public education system.”

Espinosa, himself a supporter of school-choice measures, said Friday he’d like to see Justice include money in his proposed budget to avoid the anticipated PEIA cuts, and said he believes there’s also broad support for more competitive teacher pay.

But he also said, “I hope that Gov.-elect Justice will maintain his position, as expressed during the campaign, that he won’t propose new taxes, but he will present a budget that truly is balanced based on existing revenue sources.”

Espinosa said PEIA and teacher pay increases are essentially budget questions.

At the same time, Espinosa has also said he supports broadening the tax base as part of possible tax reform. When a reporter said that sounds like at least a tax increase on some individuals or entities, he said he thinks the goal in tax reform is to be revenue neutral, so, “as you’re eliminating certain exemptions, you’re lowering overall tax rates.”

He also talked about possible spending cuts through eliminating alleged public assistance fraud and addressing the state vehicle fleet, but didn’t have a total figure of how much those cuts could save.

Espinosa said education choice legislation, if enacted, would provide options for students and families while the “overwhelming majority of our students” would continue to pursue schooling through traditional channels, meaning there wouldn’t be a mass exodus of kids from traditional public schools.

He said he feels opponents try to portray the choice issue as, “you’re either going to focus on traditional public education, or you’re going to focus on expanded educational choice.”

“I think that’s a false dichotomy,” Espinosa said. “I think we can do both.”

While people have denounced past local spending decisions in each of the following countywide public schools — Kanawha County recently hired a spokeswoman, for instance — an overall lack of dollars has been blamed for large budget issues in:
Kanawha County, where, on Friday of the first week of this school year, the school system closed seven schools, including four of the county’s eight public high schools, due to air conditioning and power failures, meaning about one in 10 Kanawha public schools were closed that day.

Superintendent Ron Duerring has said the county has old AC systems and not enough money to replace them or make major upgrades.

Boone County, where state Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano ordered the local school board members to drastically cut their 556 employees’ pay and benefits to save money for this school year, following the local board’s previous decisions to eliminate about 80 positions and close three elementary schools. The budget cuts also deprived Boone students of science textbooks.

Fayette County, which has been controlled by the state Board of Education since 2010, and where state School Building Authority staff said limited funds led them to develop a plan to drop the number of Fayette public schools from 18 to 11 for Fayette to be able to afford providing the curriculum and other offerings SBA officials said the community requested.

And a decline in students and money is often used to argue for public school consolidations. There were 713 public schools in West Virginia last school year, down from 753 about a decade ago.

The number of West Virginia students enrolled in private schools decreased from 13,318 about five years ago to 10,405 last school year, according to state education department numbers. Yet, in contrast to the public school and private school enrollment declines over the same period, homeschool enrollment grew from 7,183 to 11,080.

The department said it didn’t have homeschool or private school enrollment numbers available from before the 2010-11 school year, and it doesn’t yet have such figures for this school year.

Forty-eight out of West Virginia’s 55 counties had public school enrollments under 10,000 both last school year and this school year.

Espinosa represents Jefferson County, which, unlike most other counties, is growing. When comparing last school year to a decade ago, the number of Jefferson public schools increased by four, the highest increase in the state.

No. 2 was Berkeley County, right next to Jefferson in the state’s Eastern Panhandle. Berkeley added a net of three new public schools over the past decade.

Senate President-elect Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said he’s sure a lot of the upcoming session’s focus, as far as education goes, will be on finally pursuing the unfulfilled recommendations of the 2012 “Education Efficiency Audit of West Virginia’s Primary and Secondary Education System” and providing more flexibility to public school systems in areas like hiring school employees and purchasing. He said he didn’t have information Friday on what exact flexibilities he wants to push.

When asked whether education choice measures would be pushed early in the session, he said no, but he will set up a subcommittee to review such ideas.

“We’re not committed to it 100 percent, we’re just going to take a hard look at it,” Carmichael said.

He said he’s interested in any proposal that can be empirically proven to improve kids’ education.

Both he and Espinosa said they support charter schools, but they currently feel the elected school board members who oversee countywide public school systems should have the ultimate approval on whether to allow charters in their counties.

Espinosa said, while he’s open to discussing the issue with his colleagues, “I tried to make it very clear during previous discussions of charter schools: the last thing I want to mandate any county to do is have a local public charter school.”

Todd Ziebarth, a senior vice president for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, has said he’s concerned that provision could stop any charters from starting in the Mountain State. He said those wanting to start charters, which are generally free from certain regulations traditional public schools face, should be able to appeal a school board’s denial of their right to exist.

Espinosa said legislative interim meetings this week are supposed to include a presentation on online schools. And Espinosa has also expressed support for Education Savings Accounts.

The ESA concept — not the same thing as 529 college savings accounts, though ESA supporters have said ESAs could possibly be used for college costs — can give families control of a portion of the funding for their child that would have otherwise gone to a traditional public school.

The family can choose to instead use that money to pay for costs outside the traditional public education system, like homeschooling their kids or sending them to private schools. Espinosa said Friday he didn’t have parameters on what particularly he’d like to see in an ESA bill, including whether it would be for only a certain subset of students, like low-income or special education children, or like Nevada’s offering to all students.

The senator, who said he’s Roman Catholic, also said he didn’t know whether he’d like to see the private school ESA option restricted to non-religious schools. He said the fact Catholic and other Christian schools might benefit was not a motivation for supporting the ESA concept.

There is little current oversight of homeschool students or private schools, according to the state education department, and a law Espinosa and nearly all the rest of the House supported last session significantly reduced homeschool regulation.

The department said there are 145 West Virginia private schools this school year, and about 100 include “Christ,” “Christian,” “Bible,” “parish” or the name of a Christian denomination in the title. That number doesn’t include schools named after saints or with other religious connotations in their names.

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