The fight in the West Virginia Legislature over charter schools is over for now. A bill has been passed in special session. Now it moves on to Gov. Jim Justice, who has said he plans to sign it.
The omnibus education reform package has been a contentious issue all year. Its various sizes and forms have brought widespread criticism and protests, especially from people who work in the education establishment, along with less strenuous support from its backers.
The main point of contention has been the insistence by the state Senate's Republican leadership that charter schools be allowed to operate in West Virginia. As passed, House Bill 206 opens the West Virginia K-12 education system to public charter schools. The bill allows for a gradually increasing number of charter schools in West Virginia. The number would be limited to three until 2023 and then could increase by three every three years after that.
So what exactly are we talking about when we mention charter schools as allowed by HB 206? The bill allows public charter schools that are formed by any combination of parents, community members, teachers, school administrators or institutions of higher education. They are public schools and may not be affiliated with any religious sect, nor may they employ religious practices in admissions, curriculum or employment.
Public charter schools are nonprofit. They are meant to empower new, innovative and more flexible ways to educate children such as by a distinctive curriculum or a specialized academic or technical theme.
They operate under the authority of county boards of education, and they may recruit students only from the county or counties that formed them.
First, concerns over the profit motive should be reduced. The law does not allow for the operation of for-profit schools under the name of public charter schools.
Second, the debate over charter schools now moves from the state level to the local level, at least until charter school opponents can take control of the Legislature and the governor's office.
Lots of people in West Virginia want more local control, and now they have it, at least as far as charter schools are concerned. Fifty-five county boards of education may have to confront this question along with the debate and acrimony it may bring.
Third, if public schools in some counties aren't getting the job done to parents' satisfaction, what's wrong with another kind of competition?
Private schools and homeschooling already compete with public education. It's not like public schools aren't competing in the educational marketplace. Why shouldn't parents have another choice in areas where the public schools need improvement?
Tying back into the second point, why not add some flexibility into a system that is often too rigid and too micromanaged at the state or county level? We hire teachers to teach. Let them teach. Let teachers and principals try some innovative methods. The Explorer Academy in Huntington could be considered a public charter school. See what works there and what could be used elsewhere.
West Virginians often complain about their underperforming public school system, but it must be acknowledged that the system starts at a handicap. Education brings affluence, but a certain level of affluence correlates with quality of education. As a state with relatively few affluent people, West Virginia must struggle just to catch up with other states' school systems, let alone get ahead of them.
Stagnant thinking does not work in a changing world. The Legislature has passed a bill that will allow local communities to propose newer systems of teaching and learning. There will be experiments. Odds are that some will succeed and some will fail. We at least have to try.
As politicians are fond of saying, it's for the children.