Don’t be fooled by charter school bill

By Christine Campbell and Randi Weingarten

When it comes to our neighborhood schools, we need to ensure they are places where parents want to send their children, educators want to teach and students thrive. This takes resources, hard work and collaboration — as we are doing in McDowell County. Unfortunately, the West Virginia Legislature is considering a bill that would go in the opposite direction, creating new charter schools that would — as experience in other states suggests — drain resources, thwart partnerships and strip local decision-making and taxpayer and parent accountability.

Charter schools succeed only when they are held accountable academically and financially, and when teachers and service personnel are respected and empowered to advocate for their students. Yet it is that lack of accountability and adequate protections for students and educators that are at the core of so many charter school failures. One of the selling points by promoters of charter schools is that the schools get public dollars without the usual oversight regulations of traditional public schools.

But states with weak charter school laws, like the proposed legislation in West Virginia, have seen financial embezzlement, self-dealing and poor student performance.

For example, Michigan has one of the weakest charter accountability laws in the nation and offers a textbook case for what not to do. Even though taxpayers poured about $1 billion a year into charters, a Detroit Free Press investigation last year found a wide range of abuses, including wasteful spending, double-dipping and dismal school performance.

In Ohio, the state auditor found that between 2000 and 2014, 110 charter schools had misspent a total of $22.6 million, and many of those schools were closed.

In Pennsylvania, charter school officials have defrauded $30 million intended for students since 1997; ironically, virtually all of the state’s charter schools are found to be fiscally sound each year. And West Virginia should stay far away from virtual charter schools. A study by Stanford University found that students who take all of their classes online learn significantly less, on average, than students at traditional public schools.

These experiences should be a cautionary tale for West Virginia. The highly problematic charter school legislation, which is sponsored by Republican lawmakers, could open the floodgates, allowing an unlimited number of charter schools to open and even discriminate against their employees and students. Furthermore, it strips local control from those closest to our students. Almost anyone would be able to apply to operate a charter school, and a state board would be created to bypass local school board decisions denying an application.

In addition to stripping away any real way teachers can speak up for students, it does something even more devastating for school service personnel. It creates a back door to fire them, by allowing charter school operators to contract out their jobs to private companies, including out-of-state corporations. Hardworking West Virginians who have dedicated their lives to helping students could be fired so that charter schools can cut corners and privatize services.

So at a time when we need good jobs, decent wages and resources to help students, this bill would set us back.

If the true intention of the legislation is to improve teaching and learning, this is the wrong path. As we have seen in our work in McDowell County, the key is providing reforms, programs and services that have a track record. Children need safe and welcoming schools with an engaging curriculum as well as access to health services, after-school tutoring programs and modern technology.

And educators need to be able to advocate for their profession and their students. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of other states and instead focus on what works. With approximately 600 teacher vacancies in our neighborhood schools, this is not the time to begin privatizing public education in West Virginia.

Christine Campbell is president of AFT-West Virginia, and Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers.