Charters coming to West Virginia? Maybe, maybe not
(W.Va.) Nearly three decades after the nation’s first charter school opened in Winona, Minnesota, lawmakers in Charleston appear poised to pass an authorization bill for West Virginia.
SB 451, sponsored by the state Senate’s education committee, won passage last week in the House of Delegates by a large majority.
Although a majority of the state Senate also appears to favor charters, it is far from certain that West Virginia would become one of the last few remaining states to adopt an authorization law—largely because Gov. Jim Justice has said he opposes the notion.
SB 451 is an education omnibus bill, meaning that it includes a wide variety of proposals from school funding to layoff rules—some of which Justice has said he also opposes.
It is also important to note that most of the state’s education lobby is opposed to the bill in its current form—including the West Virginia Education Association, just off a stunning victory in last year’s teachers’ strike.
Justice’s opposition is further complicated by his willingness to shed party affiliation for political purposes. As perhaps the state’s only billionaire, Justice changed from Republican to Democrat and won the governor’s office in 2016.
Last summer at a rally for President Donald Trump, Justice announced he was returning to the fold as a Republican.
As the politics play out in the background, there is still an important policy question surrounding charter schools and West Virginia.
Three years ago, a bill that would have allowed up to 10 charter schools over five years died in committee after Democrats rallied against it.
According to analysis by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the bill just approved by the House would allow just two charters, as opposed to an unlimited number that would be allowed under the bill approved in the Senate.
There is also a disagreement between the two houses over education savings accounts and union work rules.
That West Virginia continues to grapple with the charter school question, in some ways, reflects the turbulent political landscape in the state.
For decades, the state’s strong union tradition delivered wins for the Democrats but that began to change in the late 1990s as coal and other industries lost ground.
George W. Bush became the first Republican presidential candidate to carry the state in six prior elections with his win over Al Gore in 2000.
Although the question over charter authorizations has become far less partisan over the years, the issue has sparked new opposition from employee unions that have close ties to the Democrats. A key part of the teacher strike in Los Angeles last month, for instance was over the growth of charter schools in the district.
Currently, 44 states and the District of Columbia have laws authorizing charter schools—with Kentucky being the most recent with its approval in 2017, according to the Education Commission of the States.
Along with West Virginia, the other states without charter authorization laws are Nebraska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Vermont, according to the commission.