WV House of Delegates passes charter school expansion bill

News and Sentinel
Steven Adams
Feb 17, 2021

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia House of Delegates passed two education bills Tuesday, with much debate over an effort to expand the state’s public charter school pilot program.

House Bill 2012 changing the public charter school pilot program passed 66-32 and now heads to the Senate. HB 2012 would amend the program, changing the maximum number of public charter schools in a three-year period from three to 10.

“This bill gives choice,” said House Education Committee Chairman Joe Ellington, R-Mercer. “This gives (students) opportunities, and it’s our obligation to educate each of the students. The ones who want to go into that kind of setting shouldn’t be stopped from doing that is they’re going to excel there.”

The bill creates a new West Virginia Professional Charter School Board as an authorizer for charter school applications. Virtual charter schools would be allowed under the bill’s provisions, with one statewide virtual charter and county-level virtual charters, though no more than 10 percent of the state or county’s student population can participate.

Democratic House members were opposed to HB 2012, accusing Republicans of rushing the bill through, not including a fiscal note with the bill detailing potential costs and not working in a bipartisan fashion.

“Let’s promote the best policies for our state,” said House Education Committee Minority Chairman Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell. “We have to be part of the radical middle and make this piece of legislation better, and we have failed to do so. It’s for that reason I strongly encourage you not just to vote down on this, but slow down and let’s take a more concerted effort to make this legislation that’s going to impact our children a lot better.”

During debate, Democratic lawmakers said the bill discriminated against students with disabilities, provided no specific requirements for transportation or nutrition, made it hard for students without computers or reliable internet to participate in the virtual charters and retaliated against teachers. They also accused Republicans of taking public funding away from individual schools since 90 percent of the state’s per-pupil expenditure would follow the student to the public charter school.

“I just wonder if this is a retaliatory bill for the teachers who cared enough about their students to stand up against us for two years and now they can’t do that,” said Delegate Liza Zukoff, D-Marshall. “Who does this bill hurt? It hurts the child whose parents don’t have a concern for their education … how many little Johnnys and Sallys are we going to leave out of this system?”

In a surprise move, an effort by House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, to place remarks by House Democratic members during the debate on HB 2012 in the appendix of the House Journal, normally a tradition and courtesy, was rejected when Majority Caucus Chairwoman Diana Graves, R-Kanawha, objected to the motion. In a vote that required two-thirds of members to prevail, Graves’ motion was adopted 72-25.

Visibly upset after the floor session, Fluharty said he had never seen some object to placing remarks from members in the journal during his more than three terms in the House. In the case of three delegates, Ric Griffith, D-Wayne, Kayla Young, D-Kanawha, and Joey Garcia, D-Marion, it was their first floor remarks since taking office in January.

“It goes against transparency in government,” Fluharty said. “It’s really for the people of West Virginia who are being represented down here. They don’t get to see and hear what all takes place. By placing the words on the appendix of the journal, we have a record of what happened today. They objected to placing these remarks in the record.”

House Bill 206, passed during a 2019 special session for education reform, created the public charter school pilot program. Since the program was created, only one charter school has been attempted. A group of parents in the Monongalia County area applied to the Monongalia County and Preston County boards of education to create a public charter school serving students and parents in those two counties.

House Education Committee Vice Chairman Joshua Higginbotham, R-Putnam, said he was proud of pushing these changes to the state public charter pilot program and hopes it means others will submit applications.

“I’m excited to see the House of Delegates overwhelming supporting a charter school reform bill,” Higginbotham said. “I think that West Virginia students deserve opportunities outside of what is potentially a failing public school system. Charter schools are public schools, it’s just a different way to get an education. It’s not defunding schools, it’s making sure there are alternative ways of having an education.”

Public teacher unions, including in West Virginia, remain opposed to any form of public charter school expansion. Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said polling done by the state Department of Education two years ago found that 86 percent of West Virginians did not support charter schools.

“This is another example of voting against the will of the people,” Lee said. “The loud voice of a few overrides the majority of the people … I do know that it has to take money away from our public schools and the creation of a virtual charter is just the wrong thing to do at this time. It will create a system of the haves and have-nots.”

Supporters of school choice see expansion of charter schools as another tool in the toolbox to help students with individualized learning needs. Garrett Ballengee, executive director of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, said SB 2012 is an improvement over the 2019 charter school provisions.

“Though an admirable start, 2019’s charter school legislation left a lot to be desired in some key areas,” Ballengee said. “I believe this year’s legislation goes a long way towards correcting some of those original issues.”

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