SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. – On Tuesday, the House of Delegates passed House Bill 2012 to expand the public charter school system in West Virginia.
HB 2012 would allow a total of 10 charter schools to be approved over a three-year period. The current law permits three charter schools to be established in West Virginia between now and 2023.
There are no operational public charter institutions in the state. In Dec. 2020, school boards in Monongalia and Preston counties rejected the first application to establish a charter school in West Virginia.
HB 2012 would establish the West Virginia Professional Charter School Board as an authorizer in addition to county school boards.
The bill would also permit the Professional Charter School Board to authorize a statewide virtual public charter school. County school boards would be allowed to authorize one virtual public charter school per county.
Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said HB 2012 is designed to provide West Virginians with more educational options.
“Now more than ever, West Virginia families want and deserve additional education options,” Espinosa said in a recent interview. “The education reform legislation being enacted this session further empowers parents to choose the options that best meet the needs of their children.”
Espinosa said state Republican lawmakers believe charter schools are a valuable part to the education system. Espinosa is a co-sponsor of HB 2012 along with four other Republican delegates and lead sponsor Delegate Doug Smith, R-Mercer.
HB 2012 passed by a vote of 66 to 32. Ten Republicans and all 22 Democrats voted against the bill. Delegates Nathan Brown, D-Mingo, and Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, were not present to vote.
Several Democrats spoke against the bill during the legislative session Tuesday, while Republican delegates mainly stayed silent.
Delegate Cody Thompson, D-Randolph, was the first in the session to voice opposition to HB 2012.
Thompson, along with many other colleagues, said he did not agree with increasing the limit on charter schools.
“We’re going to increase the number of charter schools allowed in the state up to 10,” Thompson said on the floor. “We currently have zero with one applicant that was rejected. So what is the purpose to raise it to 10? [It] makes no sense.”
Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, who is on the House Education Committee, also does not agree with the proposal to raise the limit on charter schools.
“Until we get three, there’s no reason to expand a limit beyond three,” Doyle said in a recent interview. “I think it’s going to be a long time before we even hit three.”
Doyle also said he agrees with public school being temporarily virtual in the interest of public health. However, Doyle said he acknowledges that the education students are getting online is lesser quality than in-person learning.
“One of the things that many of my constituents are complaining about is the fact that their kids are not going to school in person,” Doyle said. “They’re going to school virtually, and it’s not as good as in-person education. … So to come in and say ‘Now we’re going to add this virtual component to the charter schools bill,’ I just think is backward thinking.”
Delegate Thompson spoke about virtual learning during the House session. He said he was concerned that the virtual school provision of the bill would cause inequity in education for rural students.
“The infrastructure is not there,” Thompson said. “So we’re going to tell kids who live in the more rural parts of the county or where there’s not broadband access that ‘You cannot partake in this.’ … I urge you to think about the little child that will not be able to attend this school as a virtual school, and I urge rejection.”
Delegate Doyle said he generally opposes charter schools because he believes they have a mixed record nationally.
“Generally speaking, they have certainly not proven to be more effective than public schools, and I think you shouldn’t make a change if it’s not going to improve the situation,” Doyle said.
Doyle said he acknowledges that charter schools can be effective in urban areas but added that there is not much urbanity in West Virginia.
Doyle said he would have previously voted for the 2019 omnibus education bill if it had limited the charter schools to municipalities greater than 15,000 people. The omnibus bill was passed into a law later that year.
This year with HB 2012, Delegates Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, and Delegates Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, proposed an amendment to establish three of the 10 charter schools in districts “where children are historically underperforming and the proposed public charter school is designed to provide specialized curriculum, mentoring programs and alternative interdisciplinary frameworks which utilize evidence-based approaches to student assessment and instruction that will enhance underperforming students’ performance and graduation success.”
The amendment was rejected as well as the three others proposed by House Democrats.
House Education Chair Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, spoke in favor of the bill during session and answered questions asked by his Democrat colleagues.
“Sure, virtual is not working very well throughout the state,” Ellington said in a closing debate on the bill. “That could be for a number of reasons. Yeah, infrastructure is lacking in certain areas – we know that; we’ve been working on that for a number of years. Can we get that corrected even in the next decade? I doubt it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do things in areas that are working.”
Ellington maintained that the goal of HB 2012 was to provide choice and opportunities for West Virginia students and parents.
“This bill gives choice,” Ellington said. “[It] gives the opportunity because some kids did well on virtual. They may be perfect for this type of setting. Well, that’s where their parents have to decide if that’s what good for them and if that’s better than being back in the brick-and-mortar school system.”
Delegate Espinosa said the charter school bill will give West Virginians the same opportunity many other states have.
“If providing West Virginia families the same opportunity that those in 44 states and the District of Columbia enjoy is controversial, it shouldn’t be,” Espinosa said.
HB 2012 moves forward to the Senate, where the Republican majority will likely pass it.