Senate charter school bill stalls

by Samuel Speciale, Education reporter
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A state Senate bill that would authorize county school boards to form charter schools in West Virginia has stalled in committee, but legislators are certain it will make it to the floor in the next week.

The bill, which was introduced at the start of the legislative session, would make West Virginia the 43rd state to allow public charter schools. While it was supposed to be moved to the floor last week by Senate Education Committee members, Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, the bill’s lead sponsor and committee chairman, said proceedings have been delayed.

Committee members were scheduled to start the amendment process at their meeting last week, but a heated debate on the Department of Education’s lack of involvement stalled discussions. After that meeting, Sypolt said committee members would continue to work on amendments over the weekend and reevaluate them on Tuesday.

The committee never got that far.

While committee members discussed potential amendments that would set up an appeals process should a county school board choose not to approve a valid charter application, they ran out of time because an extended Senate session pushed all meetings back 30 minutes.

When asked if he was worried the continued delays were any indication of the bill’s chance of advancing, Sypolt said he expects amendments to be ready by week’s end.

“If not then, we’ll have it out next week,” he said with uncertainty. “I don’t mean to sound dumb, but sometimes we just don’t know.”

While Sypolt has had trouble predicting when the committee will move the bill to the floor, he is confident the process won’t be delayed much longer.

“It’s going to move,” he said. “I can’t say so for the rest of the legislative process, but it’s going to move.”

While many Republican legislators and some in the state’s education community champion the concept of charter schools, the bill has been controversial with some Democrats and teachers unions.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated and free from certain state and local regulations. While they have the freedom to set their own hiring policies, create a calendar and adopt a curriculum, they must still follow state-approved academic standards.

While charter schools are supported by many organizations for their success in improving student achievement in large suburban districts around the country, the state’s teachers unions argue it would create a disparity in public education spending and set up exclusive schools for privileged students.

There also are concerns with how the schools will be funded, governed and held accountable as well as how a lottery system would determine which students can attend.

Despite those concerns, a representative from the National Alliance For Charter Schools said Tuesday that the bill and its committee substitute would create one of the best charter school systems in the country. She said her organization, which rank state charter school laws on their compliance with a model it created, would place West Virginia’s proposed law in the top 10.

While Sypolt said committee members will try to caucus for a late meeting today, it’s unlikely they will meet before their next scheduled time on Thursday at 2 p.m.

Contact writer Samuel Speciale at sam.speciale@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-4886. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wvschools.