W.Va. Legislature dives into charter schools debate

By Ryan Quinn, Staff writer

The now-Republican-controlled West Virginia Legislature is considering allowing charter schools in the state, but teachers’ unions are criticizing the effort and questioning the need.

The Legislature will hold a public hearing on the matter 5 p.m. Wednesday in the House of Delegates chamber. The Senate Education Committee was supposed to discuss a specific bill to allow charters Tuesday, but committee Chairman Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, said the draft is now being substantially rewritten because its language doesn’t fit with existing state law and doesn’t fit recommendations made by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Regardless, the presidents of both major teachers’ unions showed up at Tuesday’s committee meeting to denounce the bill and tell legislators that they’ve seen no public outcry for charter schools, which are generally granted more freedom than regular public schools in using the public funding they are given.

Eugenie Taylor, special issues coordinator for the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, told legislators Tuesday that West Virginia is one of only eight states that don’t allow charter schools. She said the current system is failing too many children.

“The status quo is hard to defend,” Taylor said. “Those kids need you to be bold to give them options for a different model.”

Lisa Grover, senior director for state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said charter schools are given the extra autonomy in exchange for higher levels of accountability. But the teachers’ union presidents said if flexibility to improve education is why legislators want charter schools, they should look to the state’s existing and expanding Innovation Zone programs.

Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, said Innovation Zones allow schools to identify deficient areas and develop creative solutions, which can include waivers of current state school board policies and extra funding.

She mentioned Cabell County’s Teacher Induction Program, an Innovation Zone program in which the entire county got a waiver from a policy that required one year of mentoring for each new teacher from one person who teaches in his or her subject area.

The school district used its freedom to expand the mentoring program to three years and establish a team of mentors for each teacher, instead of just one person, Campbell said. In response to the program’s success, the state school board allowed more leeway in mentoring programs across West Virginia.

“Those are the kinds of things we should be celebrating in West Virginia in something like an Innovation Zone, instead of just creating a whole ‘nother system of schools,” Campbell said.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said the state needs to give countywide Innovation Zones, which he said were approved in last year’s legislative session, time to work.

The state also has other flexibility programs, including the expanding community schools pilot project on the West Side of Charleston, an area that has some of the lowest-performing schools in the state. Taylor pointed to the West Side Tuesday as an example of failure under the status quo, though the pilot program was only approved there in the last few years.

The original drafted version of Senate Bill 14 would’ve enabled both the creation of new charter schools and the conversion of existing regular public schools into charters.

Charters would be exempted from certain state laws and state and county school board policies, including rules regarding hiring and firing, minimum daily instructional time, programs of study, instructional goals and school year calendars.

Campbell said these exemptions could essentially make teachers at-will employees without contracts.

The bill would’ve allowed the charters to set up performance-based pay, something that’s currently banned in West Virginia, said state Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro. Teachers can currently receive salary raises for things like becoming nationally certified and receiving higher college degrees, but the bill would allow for raises based on increases in “student achievement” and other factors.

Republicans had supported pay increases for teacher performance before they took over the majority this session for the first time in about 80 years.

The bill didn’t state exactly how that “student achievement” would be measured.

The charters would be barred from charging tuition, and meetings of their newly established governing boards – consisting mostly of teachers and parents – would be subject to the state’s open meetings rules.

Teachers, local school improvement councils and education organizations, like universities, would be allowed to apply to convert existing schools into charters. But only teachers and education organizations could apply to create new charter schools.

For a regular public school to be converted into a charter, 60 percent of the teachers would have to sign a petition in support, or the local school improvement council members would have to unanimously vote in support.

For the creation of an entirely new charter school, 60 percent of teachers in the entire county district would have to sign a petition in support.

The county school board would then have to approve or deny the conversion or creation of the charter school, which could operate for three years until its charter status must be reapproved.

The county board could revoke the charter before the end of its term for certain reasons, including two consecutive years without improved test scores.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.