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Amended Charter School Expansion Bill Moves Ahead In W.Va. Senate

Senate Education Chair Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, speaks on amendments to HB 2012 during a Senate floor session on Feb. 26, 2021.
Will Price
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WV Legislative Photography
Senate Education Chair Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, speaks on amendments to HB 2012 during a Senate floor session on Feb. 26, 2021.

A bill expanding on West Virginia’s public charter school law is now back, in part, to an earlier version that was passed by the House of Delegates last week.

HB 2012 once again permits up to 10 public charter schools to be established by 2023. The shift occurred after an amendment adopted Friday on the Senate floor was offered by Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, chair of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Development Committee.

“[The amendment] returns the language relating to the cap on the number of public charter schools to the original language in the House bill,” Sypolt said.

Sypolt’s amendment also removes a cap of 1,500 students placed on statewide virtual public charter school enrollment. His amendment also clarifies certain penalties that could lead to revocation of a charter school, and it requires virtual charters to be held to the same obligations as brick-and-mortar charters as it relates to needs of special education students.

The section of the amendment regarding caps reverses course on changes adopted earlier this week by the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, who had proposed the committee amendment that placed restrictions on charters, spoke in opposition to Sypolt’s amendment.

Romano pointed to financial concern. In committee, lawmakers were told that both the virtual and the brick-and-mortar charter schools would each require the same amount of public funding to run.

“Are we going to tell the public that we're willing to risk $98 million, because we think this is a good idea?” Romano said on the floor. “Nobody can explain where that money goes. Nobody can explain why the virtual charter schools need the same amount as the non-virtual charter schools … We’re gonna pass this bill with no restrictions whatsoever because of this amendment.”

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, speaks during a Senate floor session on Feb. 26, 2021.
Will Price
Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, speaks during a Senate floor session on Feb. 26, 2021.

Romano added he’d be willing to give charter schools a chance, but only if “we had some reasonable caps on what we're about to risk in this state.”

Virtual public charter school officials testified before the Senate Education Committee this week that virtual charter schools need the same level of funding as physical charters, because of high-tech equipment and programs given to students in the virtual schools. Supporters also noted that teacher contracts make up the majority of a school budget, in general.

These points, however, did not sway Romano or other Democrats in committee.

 

Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, spoke in favor of Sypolt’s floor amendment Friday. He argued that Romano’s amendment, adopted in committee, is harmful to the overall intent of the bill, and he argued against Romano’s financial concerns.

“There is a document that sheds some light on those numbers from the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program that does the granting for charter schools,” Tarr said. “West Virginia is one of the ten states in the country that has not got these. Since 1995, there's been $3.9 billion granted to public charter schools from the federal government, and recently it has averaged $463 million for expansion from 2010 to 2017. There's some significant opportunity for federal dollars into the state here.”

Sypolt’s amendment to remove the caps on charter schools was adopted by the Senate chamber on a roll call vote of 19 to 15, with four Republicans voting alongside Democrats.

Eric Tarr - Feb 26 2021.jpg
Will Price
Senate Finance Chair Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, speaks during a Senate floor session on Feb. 26, 2021.

The Senate also considered two more floor amendments offered by Democrats.

One would have created more oversight by the West Virginia Board of Education. The other was offered by Minority Leader Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier. His amendment would have required the state’s charter schools to focus solely on supporting struggling students.

“This amendment would ensure that these new charter schools are being targeted towards underperforming students,” Baldwin said.

Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, spoke in opposition to the amendment. Although she said she appreciated the intent, she argued the state’s current charter school law already “encourages” charters that establish in West Virginia to consider locations where students are underperforming. She said the amendment would hinder flexibility.

“It is already permissible. It's already encouraged,” Rucker said. “There is no reason to really add this language, which would limit what the possibilities are for the first 10 charter schools in West Virginia … The intention of this body, when we first passed [charter school] legislation [in 2019] was to allow for more local control and flexibility.”

Baldwin said there’s a big difference between “encouraging” and “requiring.”

“The intention of education reform is to increase student achievement,” Baldwin said. “I do not see how we are limiting the possibilities if we focus on students who are not achieving … We've got to remember what the purpose of this is about. Student achievement, students learning, students growing, students maturing, and if we reject an amendment that focuses on students who are not achieving, in a bill that's supposed to help students achieve, then what are we doing?”

Minority Leader Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, speaks during a Senate floor session on Feb. 26, 2021.
Will Price
Minority Leader Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, speaks during a Senate floor session on Feb. 26, 2021.

Baldwin’s amendment failed, and the other amendment to establish more oversight was withdrawn.

The Senate also approved a committee amendment proposed by Senate Education Chair Rucker that permits the establishment of two, statewide virtual public charter schools that can each have up to 5 percent of the public school student population -- totaling 10 percent. The bill also permits public charter schools to act as their own Local Education Agency, or LEA, after being approved.

Minority Democrats have long urged the majority GOP to tread cautiously as the state, so far, has not approved any charter schools. There is also concern on the impacts the schools may have on traditional public school enrollment and support.

Proponents of establishing public charters argue limitations and caps will impact federal funding and limit opportunities for school choice.

HB 2012 is slated for a final vote, with the right to amend, in the Senate on Monday. It will then be sent back to the House of Delegates for consideration.


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