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West Virginia Enacts State’s First Charter School Legislation

August 2, 2019

A previous school choice bill passed the state Senate but was stopped in the state’s House of Representatives after a statewide, two-day strike by teachers’ unions.

West Virginia enacted legislation allowing charter schools for the first time in the state’s history.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice signed H.B. 206 into law on June 28. The new law allows the creation of three charter schools by 2023. After 2023, up to three additional charter schools can be created every three years.

A previous school choice bill, S.B. 451, passed the state Senate but was stopped in the state’s House of Representatives in February 2019 after a statewide, two-day strike by teachers’ unions. S.B. 451 would have created education savings accounts (ESAs) for some students, established a nonrefundable tax credit parents and teachers could use for children’s educational expenses, and authorized the state’s first charter schools.

H.B. 206 represents a compromise among the House, the Senate, and the governor’s office. After Justice signed H.B. 206, the West Virginia Education Association released a statement expressing its intention to sue to block the law.

‘One Small Step’

The new law is just a little movement in the right direction for the state, says Robert Holland, senior fellow for education policy at The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News.

“With the compromise bill from a special legislative session now signed into law, West Virginia has taken one small step toward parental choice in elementary and secondary education,” said Holland.

Calls for More

West Virginia needs a bolder approach to education reform than this compromise in the face of opposition, says Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform.

"Rather than consider a bold proposal that would have allowed thousands of students to attend brand-new, innovative schools of choice, the West Virginia legislature has bent to both ignorance and special-interest pressure,” Allen said.

“While we appreciate the challenges the proponents of the legislation have faced, there’s more to be done to enact meaningful educational reform across the state,” Allen said.

Behind the Curve

Stronger legislation would help West Virginia catch up with other states that have successfully created charter schools, says Allen.

"Legislators in the Mountain State, where less than one-third of students are proficient in math or reading, have offered limited means to expand education opportunity for its students,” Allen said.

The charter school bill faced opposition from teachers, public school administrators, school boards, and some legislators, Allen says.

"Rather than be bold, the legislature has succumbed to pressure by those organizations and individuals that have failed West Virginia’s kids and families,” Allen said.

“Instead of following the lead of cities like Boston and Washington, D.C. where charters have outperformed traditional public schools, West Virginia students will have less accessibility to diverse, more responsive, and more individualized learning opportunities,” Allen said.

‘Will Citizens Strike Back?’

Teachers unions will continue to oppose the implementation of charter schools in West Virginia, ultimately placing the decision back in the hands of the voters, says Holland.

“The state’s powerful teacher unions fought every inch of the way,” Holland said. “Next, they almost surely will resist the establishment of even just the very few charter schools of choice permitted under the law, as well as the new ability of parents to transfer their children across district boundaries.”

The walkout by teachers in February might be repeated if legislators consider additional reforms, says Holland, because it successfully killed a broader school choice bill.

“Will teacher activists again resort to wildcat strikes to stifle even these small measures of progress?” Holland said. “And if they do, will citizens strike back at the ballot box to ensure an enduring victory for parental rights in West Virginia?

“Ultimately, it is up to voters to decide whether the interests of children or of greedy unions will prevail in K-12 education,” Holland said.

Hayley Sledge (hayley@sledges.us) writes from Dayton, Ohio.

Internet Info

Bonner R. Cohen, “West Virginia Choice Bill Scuttled After Teachers Strike,” Budget & Tax News, The Heartland Institute, May 2, 2019: https://www.heartland.org/news-opinion/news/west-virginia-choice-bill-scuttled-after-teachers-strike

Timothy Benson, “Research & Commentary: Universal ESA Program Would Provide Access to Quality Schools for All West Virginia Children,” The Heartland Institute, January 29, 2019: https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/research--commentary-universal-esa-program-would-provide-access-to-quality-schools-for-all-west-virginia-children

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