CHARLESTON — West Virginia Board of Education members opened the door Wednesday for applications to create the first charter schools in the state.
The board approved regulations for the schools. State legislators allowed charter schools through last year’s controversial omnibus education law (HB 206).
That law required the state school board to implement regulations. The board on Wednesday opted against using its state constitutional independence to challenge lawmakers’ order to legalize the schools.
Now county boards of education, which don’t have that constitutional power, will be forced to implement their own charter policies, though the state policy includes draft language they can use.
Debra Sullivan, the former principal at Charleston Catholic High School who previously served in the public school system, was the only state school board member to vote no on the charter school rules.
Sullivan read a written statement that said “the policy reflects the most current national research on charter schools,” but “my concerns are less with the policy than with the idea of charter schools.”
She echoed concerns heard during last year’s opposition to the omnibus.
Sullivan questioned whether money diverted to charters will cause current public schools to increase class sizes, cut extracurriculars or maintenance or even shut down, and she added that county school systems will have a hard time managing the detailed charter application process and then overseeing charters.
If county boards of education don’t meet certain steps by certain dates, charter schools are automatically approved to open.
“I am not convinced that the way to strengthen our public schools is by diverting public funds to support a parallel set of schools or educational options,” she said.
Elsewhere across the country, charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, including by nonprofit groups and for-profit companies.
What West Virginia’s charter regulations actually entail was unclear Wednesday.
The department published an initial proposal for public comment in November. The agency didn’t publish the final proposal — the one incorporating changes from comments and the one the board approved — until 8:15 a.m. Wednesday, shortly before the board meeting, according to the board’s secretary.
There were 510 comments from about 125 people, the department said.
“Those commenters identified as parents, teachers, support personnel, administrators, higher education faculty and others,” said Sarah Stewart, the department’s government affairs counsel. She said many comments resulted in changes.
She said a majority of the policy emanates directly from the omnibus. On one part where the law was silent, Stewart said the policy bans charters from providing more than half their instruction online.
Sullivan said many comments related to what requirements people would have to have to work in charter schools. The policy doesn’t specify what is required to teach, and Sullivan asked whether even a college degree would be mandated.
Oliver Ho, a department coordinator who helped with the policy, said it’s “incumbent on the authorizer, the county board of education, to make sure that those plans that the charter school has for staffing its school appropriately to provide instruction — that meets these exceptional accountability measures that are going to be in place — is there.”
County school boards get to approve or deny charter applications and set extra accountability measures, but the process the omnibus set forth was complex and didn’t allow for easy rejections.
State school board members, in a voice vote with no nays heard, also abandoned proposed reductions in high school social studies standards. The changes faced a deluge of criticism from state residents and lawmakers after the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported on the proposed reductions.
Among the abandoned social studies proposals: cutting social studies credits required to graduate from four to three; teaching U.S. history in one course instead of two; allowing students to more easily avoid World Studies, from prehistory to the 1800s; and allowing counties to no longer offer economics, geography or U.S. or contemporary studies.
State Superintendent Steve Paine announced last month he would no longer recommend those changes. He cited an “overwhelming response” from the public and educators for his decision. Paine is scheduled to leave his post by June 30. He did not attend Wednesday’s meeting.
The board also approved changes to Policy 2510, a central curriculum policy that includes social studies requirements. Board members removed the previously proposed social studies changes while approving changes in other areas.