CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Board of Education approved policy changes Wednesday that allow for fully online charter schools, enable an unelected board to circumvent county boards of education to open charters and open the door to 10 new charters every three years, up from three every three years.
The school board also said public schoolchildren don’t need at least a 2.0 grade point average to currently start extracurricular practices, including sports practices and conditioning. Board president Miller Hall cited the coronavirus pandemic’s social, emotional and academic effects on students.
The board said it will discuss at its Aug. 11 meeting whether to waive the 2.0 requirement for the fall semester, including for games. The state also waived that requirement this past spring.
On the charter school policy changes, Debra Sullivan was the only “no” vote out of the nine board members. Daniel Snavely was the only member absent; he said he left the room to take an emergency call.
The Republican supermajority in the West Virginia Legislature and Republican Gov. Jim Justice passed a law this year, House Bill 2012, to make these changes regarding charters.
The West Virginia Supreme Court wrote in a 2017 ruling that “this Court has unequivocally held that legislative action that impedes the general supervisory powers of the (state school board) is patently unconstitutional.”
But the board chose Wednesday to not defy lawmakers, even though it had banned fully online charters in an earlier policy. In general, fully online charters have had a poor academic track record elsewhere.
Board member Stan Maynard noted Wednesday that the board had, starting in January, mandated that public schools offer some amount of in-person learning in response to problems with online education. Yet, he noted, the policy changes were opening West Virginia to fully online charters.
“I just have a concern that we’ve opened Pandora’s Box and somebody can step through,” Maynard said.
It was unclear Wednesday what specific regulations made it into the final version of the charter policy.
Unlike for most other policies, the proposed final version wasn’t attached to the board’s meeting agenda that was published days before. State education officials provided HD Media with a print copy of the final version after the board approved it Wednesday afternoon.
The Department of Education, which the board oversees, did provide a written summary Wednesday of the changes it says were made in the final version based on comments received during a public comment period. That comment period, during which a draft of the proposed changes was published, ran from early June to Monday.
The final version adds that groups applying to open fully online charters must provide a timeline for “identifying students who are consistently not engaging in learning activities” and supporting them to “consistently engage.” The draft policy changes had proposed requiring applicants to submit a “process” for identifying this lack of engagement and addressing it, but those initial proposals didn’t require a timeline.
The final version of the policy doesn’t specify when fully online charters must send back to in-person schools students who continue not to engage in online learning.
Charters, like county school systems, are largely funded based on enrollment, so they are financially incentivized to retain students, even when the school isn’t working for them. Charter schools may be opened by nonprofits if county school boards or the new state charter approval board authorize them to open. But they may be run day to day by private companies.
Also added into the final version of the policy is a requirement that, if selected, charters must take part in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Often abbreviated NAEP, it’s the biggest nationally representative test of U.S. students, and its results are sometimes useful to researchers and can help with state-to-state educational comparisons.