Among the many things West Virginians tend to complain about is their public school system. People may take pride in their own community’s schools, but overall they tend to give the public school system poor grades — justified or not.
That’s why charter schools, which have had varying degrees of success elsewhere, have taken a long time to gain an entry into West Virginia’s education system. Private schools have been here in many forms for decades, but charter schools have not.
This month, the West Virginia Professional Charter Schools Board approved brick-and-mortar schools in the Cheat Lake area of Morgantown, in Jefferson County and in Nitro along the Kanawha-Putnam county border.
The Nitro and Jefferson County programs would be run by a company called Accel Schools. The Cheat Lake school would be run by West Virginia Academy, whose president, John Treu, is a West Virginia University assistant professor of accounting.
A decision on applications for three virtual statewide charter schools remains pending. State law allows for two such schools.
Charter schools receive public money and are meant to empower new, innovative and more flexible ways to educate children such as by a distinctive curriculum or a specialized academic or technical theme.
The state constitution could be a barrier to the three charter schools ever opening their doors. A lawsuit challenging the legality of charter schools in West Virginia has been filed, so none are likely to open for business until that question is adjudicated.
What West Virginians see now is the age-old conflict between permanence and change. Many of the customers of the state’s education system — parents — want change. People inside the system want to avoid it.
Change can be a threat to people who are comfortable with the status quo. West Virginia’s public schools have seen large changes over the past few decades. Neighborhood and community schools have been closed and replaced with larger ones. More than in the past, schools are designed with security in mind. Existing ones are being retrofitted.
In theory, charter schools make sense. If the state compels people to pay taxes to support education of children, does the money attach to the school or to the child? If it attaches to the child, then charter schools give parents another choice in where the child is educated. The Republican majority in the Legislature, not nearly as sympathetic to school employee unions as the former Democratic majority, has decided the money attaches to the child, so it enacted legislation allowing charter schools to operate in the Mountain State.
The problem is what happens if a charter school underperforms or if it ends operations in mid-year. Public schools with diminished resources will be expected to repair the damage to the students’ educations. And the existence of charter schools takes resources from public schools. Private schools do not.
Public schools have failed so badly at times that the state has had to take over county systems. There are no guarantees charter schools will be better than public schools, and there are no guarantees they will be worse. All things considered, if they withstand the court challenge, charter schools are worth a try.