Public charter schools have supporters, opponents
By Suzanne Higgins
January 23, 2012 · Public charter schools exist in 42 states and the District of Columbia – but not in West Virginia.
A “Charter Schools Act” has been sponsored by several legislators but has died in committee during the last two sessions.
“It’s embarrassing that we’re so provincial and that we won’t open our minds to other ideas and give it a try,” said Sallye Clark, a retired school teacher and founder in 2008 of West Virginians for Education Reform.
Clark said she loved her 35 years with students but West Virginia has a public school system that stifles creativity and therefore student achievement.
“The beauty of charter schools is that they affords waivers that will allow the school to circumvent things that sometimes bog down the system,” said Clark.
“If third graders need to be able to multiply their 3 tables by October 1, some kids may have already accomplished that prior to that time,” explained Clark. “Yet they have to sit and wait for others to get there, or the inverse is true and some may not have accomplished it by then.”
“Everyone is expected to progress at about the same time.”
Clark says she has researched public charter schools and they have proven they deliver a more individualized approach to teaching.
Public charters are tuition-free schools that operate independently from the school district and are held accountable by a state-designated authority.
All federal laws that apply to public schools, including No Child Left Behind, apply to public charters.
They have the same academic accountability standards as traditional public schools, but public charter schools control their own curriculum, staffing, organization and budget.
“I think it’s sometimes a mistake for people to view charter and district schools as an “either-or” when in fact they’re both part of the public education system.” said Ziebarth.
“One of the reasons for charter schools is to be that laboratory of innovation that school districts can then take what’s working and apply it to the broader school system.”
Ziebarth remembers speaking to a joint education committee meeting of the West Virginia Legislature in 2010.
He discussed what works and what hasn’t worked in public charter schools around the country as WV lawmakers considered their own legislation.
“You know the major, major concerns were coming from the two teachers unions and the service employees union,” recalled Ziebarth. “Charter schools aren’t required to be unionized, so from their perspective it’s a loss of dues, it’s a loss of members and not something they felt they could support.”
“Interestingly, the state school board association was on board for getting a charter school law on the books, recognizing that it’s a positive tool to give local school boards more options to create in their districts,” he said.
“I’m against anything that takes money away from public education and all students in West Virginia,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
Lee says he supports the state’s 2 ½ year old Innovation Zones program, which he says allows schools to apply for funding to implement creative learning programs and receive permission for exceptions to certain county and state board rules and policies.
“We believe that the teacher led Innovation Zones is the best way to change schools, that teachers need to be the ones that make the decisions on what changes need to be made to improve student achievement and improve the schools, and that seems to work best, and not a charter school that educates a few.”
“We want to guarantee that every child in West Virginia has a high quality certified teacher in front of them. And we haven’t addressed that in West Virginia,” said Lee.
“Until we can get salaries to where we can compete with the surrounding states and we can recruit and retain the best and the brightest we’re not going to fill our needs and by weakening that even more with charter schools and doing some things that they would want to do does not solve the problem and does not ensure that every child in West Virginia has a great education experience.”
Supporters of charter schools point to the failure of West Virginia’s application for $80 million in a federal Race to The Top education grant 2 years ago.
West Virginia was competing with other states for the money and former State Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine said at the time the lack of charter school legislation and strict school personnel laws hurt the state’s bid.
“These applications had to outline how these states were going to push forward on education reform in a number of areas including public charter schools,” said Ziebarth.
“West Virginia, like all the other states that didn’t have a public charter school law, was basically shut out at the end of the day because they’ve left a significant lever for improving public schools off the table,” he said.
As the 2012 legislative session gets underway, charter advocates like Sallye Clark have a plea for lawmakers.
“Just allow a pilot program to start and let’s start with baby steps and then move forward with that,” said Clark. “They’re not a replacement for anything; they’re merely an addition and enhancement.”
To date, no charter school legislation has been introduced this session.