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2019 0524 EL

Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch Speaker of the House Roger Hanshaw, right, and Delegate Matthew Rohrbach talk with 5th grade students David Mange, left, and TraVaun Jennings as they join other state and county officials to visit Explorer Academy on Thursday, May 23, 2019, in Huntington. Explorer Academy's different approach to teaching has been suggested as a possible model for public charter schools in West Virginia.

In a state where a large percentage of parents are dissatisfied with the condition of public education and where public school students on average perform below national averages, there is a lot of resistance in the education establishment to change.

Last week, the state Board of Education voted to put its proposed regulations for charter schools up for public comment. Rather than the usual 30-day comment period, the board is accepting comments for 60 days.

The three unions representing teachers and service personnel already have said they will challenge the regulations in court. Thus, it could be a while before West Virginians see any new innovative schools for their children. Not that they would have seen charter schools soon anyway, as there is a long process involved. But lawsuits can only postpone or prevent the establishment of charter schools.

The Legislature passed House Bill 206 this summer to allow a limited number of charter schools. The law says charter schools may be 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 in which they were formed.

The draft regulations submitted for public comment are mostly a copy-and-paste job from HB 206. One difference is that online charter schools are not permitted under the proposed rules.

What West Virginians see now is the age-old conflict between permanence and change. Many of the customers of the state’s education system — parents — want change. People inside the system want to avoid it.

Change can be a threat to people who are comfortable with the status quo. West Virginia’s public schools have seen large changes over the past few decades. Neighborhood and community schools have been closed and replaced with larger ones. More than in the past, schools are designed with security in mind. Existing ones are being retrofitted to prevent people from just walking in.

Curricula have changed. Teaching methods have changed. More parents are opting to homeschool their children.

Public charter schools can be a way to cater to the individual needs of children. They can offer different methods to reach the same results.

Why not give parents and educators the option of designing a different school? Local school boards will have the final say, so it’s not likely a charter school will be radically different from the one down the road.

The number of charter schools allowed under HB 206 is limited. It’s not like the existence of public schools as we know them is threatened.

Rather than nitpick the technical points of the HB 206, perhaps people inside the education system could use the charter school law to get around the handcuffs they say existing laws and regulations place on them. They could work with parents and others to try something new.

Some charters will do well. Some will fail. That’s the way it is with experimentation and innovation. Why not give it a try? What does West Virginia have to lose, and what could it gain?

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