What is a charter school? Most definitions say it is a school that is run by government but is free of many of the regulations and restrictions that apply in regular schools. Teachers in charters are free to design their own curricula, and administrators have more flexibility as well.
We have two such schools in the region that could fit that definition. One is the Tri-State STEM+M Early College High School at South Point, Ohio, just across the river from West Virginia. The other is the Explorer Academy, an elementary school housed in the former Beverly Hills Middle School building at 2901 Saltwell Road in Huntington.
The Explorer Academy operates on a different philosophy than the other elementaries in Cabell County. Its curriculum is built on the Expeditionary Learning model. It's the first and so far only school in the state to use that model. Lessons are based on the idea of project-based learning through multidiscipline "expeditions" as opposed to classroom learning taught one subject at a time.
"We essentially have a charter school in Cabell County, and we've had it for four years now," Delegate Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, said May 23 during a tour of the school. "This can, and probably should, be re-created across the state."
Rohrbach was one of several local and state officials to tour the school as the debate over education reform continues in the West Virginia Legislature.
HD Media writer Bishop Nash reports that officials in several counties have expressed interest in planting their own Expeditionary Learning schools, including some from Pocahontas County, who also toured the school last week.
"Other counties want to do this, and teachers want to be innovative and use best practices," Rohrbach said. "We just need to help the counties a little bit with the funding."
Among the visitors to the Explorer Academy was Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, speaker of the House of Delegates. Hanshaw said he liked Explorer Academy's approach to engaging all the professional staff as a collective team, rather than just in isolated classrooms. That requires commitment by counties and staff, but Hanshaw said that model might just as well be replicated anywhere in West Virginia.
As to where that fits in with the current debate over charter schools, Hanshaw left room for compromise in that the definition of "charter school" has since been diluted.
"That term means so many things to so many different people that I don't know what it means to any one person anymore," Hanshaw said. "What I think we're talking about here is a will to just let schools be flexible and do what teachers know how to do, which is teach kids. What we call it is immaterial."
By coincidence or design, last week's tour of the Explorer Academy came a few days before the state Senate was to meet in special session this weekend to consider another omnibus education reform package being pushed by Senate leadership. Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said he hoped the omnibus bill could be debated and approved by the Senate in one day and sent on to the House for its consideration.
An omnibus bill failed in the regular session when the House and Senate could not agree on several provisions. Why Carmichael and others think they can persuade enough Democrats to go along with another one escapes many people.
The Legislature has its interim committee meetings throughout the year to deal with these questions. If a special session on education is needed, it should give teachers and other school employees the pay raises Carmichael and others promised them. Let the interims work through details on what changes are both needed and politically acceptable. Otherwise Carmichael is wasting more time and more money on a hopeless quest.