Charter schools draw priase, ire from all sides

By Matt Dellinger, February 12, 2017

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Charter schools are increasingly becoming a topic for debate in education circles, but many are left wondering what they are and if they’re right for West Virginia.

The state is one of eight without charter school laws and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce said it has studied the benefits of promoting an alternative to education in hopes of boosting the state’s scores.

However, other studies show the benefit of charter schools may not be as clear.

The Chamber, elected representatives, school officials and teachers have weighed in to ask questions and voice concerns about how charter schools could impact the state.

“My focus is on how the state is going to make up the $500 million deficit and how that will affect our school district and the operation side,” said Manny Arvon, Superintendent of Berkeley County Schools. “The reason we are so unique is that, when you start looking at data — during that 10 year period — Berkeley County picked up 4,000 students, Monongalia County was second with 1,500 and third was Jefferson County which was about 1,400.”

Although several counties have experienced growth, the majority of the state has not, and financial concerns are real.

“Our main concern is our ability to compete with surrounding states,” Arvon said. “When we start talking about charter schools, what is that going to do with our ability to compete to get great classroom teachers? I know historically, there have been successes and failures on charter schools.”

West Virginia’s Chamber of Commerce says the state should work to develop charter schools.

“For several years, the chamber has been studying what we can do to improve education outcomes in West Virginia,” said Steve Roberts, president of the West Virgina Chamber of Commerce. “In the course of looking at how we can improve our children’s learning opportunities, us joining the 42 other states who use charter schools can only help West Virginia.”

According to Roberts, their data supports the implementation.

“We’ve looked at the data that says charter schools that have local control, parental input, teacher input and principal input tend to have higher test scores than places where they dont,” Roberts said.

Roberts said they hope to see a law passed soon.

“The bill may pass in this session and while charter schools aren’t a partisan issue,” Roberts said. “We think now is the time. We think we’re likely to see several charter schools.”

Some educator organizations may fear a pay decrease from increased competition charter schools would

present.

“Teacher’s unions have potentially made this a partisan issue,” Roberts said. “Many charter schools don’t have union contracts. Teachers enjoy the freedom and may enjoy working without the contract. Because charter schools have different kinds of rules and procedures that are tailored to that school, the teachers make less. But in West Virginia, teachers would have been required to have been paid at the same scale.”

Some critics say that charter schools have expelled a child or transferred them after a set deadline, where money then stays with the charter school, instead of following the child. These are issues likely to be clarified in laws.

“The only opponents have been the unions,” Roberts said. “Essentially that mentality works in a one-size-fits-all, but what we’re seeing in public education is that all kids are different. Children’s needs may differ in McDowell County from Berkeley or Jefferson counties. So charter schools have tended to do a good job with less top-down more bottom-up.”

West Virginia may want to closely examine what has worked and what hasn’t in regard to charter schools.

“I’ve been a strong advocate of expanded education choice,” said Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, and chair of the education committee. “I favor providing local school districts additional options for meeting the needs of students. I’m supportive of providing that additional choice. I don’t believe that we should mandate particular education choices from Charleston, but I do support providing local school districts choice.”

Espinosa said charter schools are one of several options being considered in the legislature.

“There are a variety of education choice options. Among the options being contemplated are educational savings accounts,” Espinosa said. “It seems to be a growing option that many states are begining to look at.”

However, it may depend on the needs of his constituents.

“One of the things we’re doing right now is trying to assess where our members are on education reform, including various types of education reform — including choice,” Espinosa said. “What we’ll ultimately take up is what our members say are their priorities. We’re very much engaged. Once we have some drafted legislation, then I think we’ll be able to gage where our members are in their support.”

Still, some current educators remain concerned about the state of traditional schools and worry that charter schools could undermine public education further.

“From what I’ve heard, the money is often pulled away from public schools,” said Rhonda Foreman, English department chair at Martinsburg High School. “I’ve also heard many charter schools often do not require teachers be as highly qualified — not subjected to the same training as public school teachers — and I’ve heard charter schools tend to have ability to discriminate and choose students. That’s concerning.”

Some critics of charter schools assert a lack of diversity can be damaging to students in and outside of the entities.

“Diversity is important to make a well-rounded student,” Foreman said. “A diverse learning environment is a better learning environment, it’s the real world and not being sheltered from others who are different than you.”

Many public schools are already somewhat segregated by socioeconomic factors, and it is a fear for some that charter schools could potentially exacerbate the problem.

“From my point of view, as a nationally board certified teacher, I’m worried about holding teachers to the same standards,” Foreman said. “So from a parent point of view, are there bad teachers like bad doctors? Yes, but I think you’ll find a better quality teacher at public school and a better caliber education.”

Despite the problems with public schools, Foreman said she had faith in improving the system.

“I still think public education is the way to go,” Foreman said. “I don’t want to slander charter schools, but what will happen for public schools? It’ll be all the kids who couldn’t afford to leave for charter schools. They’re not bad kids, but it’s not fair that they’ve been left behind.”

Future educators may be less weary of more options, however.

“I think simply put, there are pros and cons with charter schools,” said Lauren Trumble, secondary education graduate student. “At the end of the day, they may be a good alternative option to public schools, but they should be an option, not the only option.”

Trumble said she has heard different proposals.

“Each charter school is different, so they’re not a one-size-fits-all school,” Trumble said. “So they might be able to play to student’s different needs — usually with smaller class sizes,”

As a future educator, she said she’s heard the negatives. Those critical of charter schools say since they can set their own rules, it’s easier to expell students or force them back into the public school system.

“I think the critics have a point,” Trumble said. “These schools say they’re open to everyone, but they definitely target a certain demographic and with a lot of applicants, they may be able to be selective.”

Despite the concerns, Trumble said she may be willing to teach at a charter school if concerns were assuaged.

“I wouldn’t be opposed if it lined up with my education philosophy,” Trumble said. “I definitely would rather teach at a public school, but I don’t have a hatred for charter schools. I have a hatred for politicians who try to take advantage of the system, but that’s different.”

Staff writer Matt Dellinger can be reached at 304-263-3381, ext. 128, or on Twitter @MattDellJN.