Officials of the West Virginia Department of Education and at least two county school superintendents met in Parkersburg last week to discuss rules to regulate charter schools in West Virginia.
The Legislature passed House Bill 206 this summer to allow a limited number of charter schools. Now it's up to the state school board to draft rules and regulations for the establishment and operation of charter schools. As contentious as it was just getting a law passed allowing charters to operate in West Virginia, debate on the rules governing them could be even more controversial.
HB 206 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. Under West Virginia's law, 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 must operate under the authority of county boards of education, and they may recruit students only from the county or counties that formed them.
Proponents of charter schools ask a simple question: If public schools in some counties aren't getting the job done to parents' satisfaction, what's wrong with competition? Why shouldn't parents have another choice, funded with their tax dollars, in areas where the public schools need improvement? And why not add some flexibility into a system that is often too rigid and too micromanaged at the state or county level?
HB 206 requires the state school board to issue regulations pertaining to charter school no later than Jan. 1, 2020. The regulations cannot be final until after a public comment period of at least 30 days.
According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine told state board members last month that he expects to have the draft regulations available for public comment by October, giving the public more than 30 days to comment.
"We want to have teacher organizations, principals, local boards, you know, higher education, lots of people in a room and have a representative sample of people to have the discussions," Paine told the state board. "We'll put people in there that are on both sides of the issue and just deal with them. That's the only way I know to do it, is just to have those frank discussions and make sure they're civil and make sure everyone has a chance to be heard, and then give you that information."
Developing a policy on charter schools undoubtedly is a complicated matter that requires extensive research and a great deal of time. Likewise, the public will need time to examine the proposed policy so it can see if the state board's plan complies with the spirit of HB 206.
The charter school fight in West Virginia isn't over. It didn't end with the Legislature's enacting a law allowing them. People who supported HB 206 and people who opposed it are gearing up for the next round.
Paine is wise to put a draft policy document out to the public early. Transparency will go a long way toward ensuring the public will get what it wanted when the Legislature approved HB 206. As the saying goes, the devil will indeed be in the details.