Those who have been following the Brexit debacle in the UK will be familiar with the terms Leavers and Remainers. Leavers are the faction who want Britain to leave the European Union, where it has prospered for decades. Remainers are the faction who want Britain to stay. West Virginia has its own version of Leavers. Our Leavers, led by Senator Patricia Rucker of Jefferson County, want to set up a system of charter schools that would permit parents to remove their children from public school. But the evidence does not show that students at charter schools perform better. Worse yet, the Leavers want the rest of us to pay for this scheme with our tax money, draining funds from already underfunded public schools.
Senator Rucker was appointed by the Republican leadership in the West Virginia Senate to be Chair of the Senate Education Committee. This Committee has first crack at any legislation affecting our public schools. She is an odd choice for this role. Her education views have been described as “extremist and in many ways anti-public education.”
Senator Rucker has five children, all of whom have been home schooled. At the very least, this shows some sort of distaste on her part for public schools. For this and other reasons the Charleston Gazette-Mail, West Virginia’s largest and most influential newspaper, declared that she was a poor choice for Education Committee Chair.
The Republican members of Senator Rucker’s Committee recently advanced SB 451, known as the Omnibus Education Bill. This 133-page Bill covers many topics, including teacher pay raises. It contains a complicated charter school provision and a provision for Education Savings Accounts into which the state would deposit money for parents to spend on private school education for their children, including religious schools and home schooling.
The Bill was passed out of the Education Committee to the floor of the Senate, from where it was scheduled to be referred to the Finance Committee. But the Republican leadership somehow forgot that they did not have the votes on Finance. As a result, they quickly resorted to parliamentary hard-ball by declaring the full Senate a Committee of the Whole and bypassing the Finance Committee. This has been done only four times in state history. A revised Bill will probably pass the Senate and move to the House in the week beginning February 4, 2019.
Since the late Nineteenth Century, American public education has produced legions of well-educated students who have gone on to productive lives. Our system has been the envy of the world. Recently, our system of public education has been weakened by poor funding and low teacher pay.
It has also been undermined by conservative ideologues like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos pushing alternatives to public school, such as charter schools, mostly in the name of parent choice. But there are already private schools in West Virginia – Jefferson has two and Berkeley has five. And there are over 11,000 home school students in West Virginia. So it cannot be a desire for alternatives to public school that is driving the Leavers.
Private schools charge tuition for attendance. These private schools are not the charter schools contemplated in SB 451, although private schools could qualify if they successfully complete the application process. Unlike private schools, SB 451 prohibits charter schools from charging tuition or fees. Instead, they would be funded by a portion of the tax money that would otherwise fund public schools.
One issue that is not addressed in the text of SB 451 is whether private religious schools may qualify as public charter schools. An applicant for a charter must be a 501(c)(3) organization, but religious schools can possess that tax designation. Although there is a provision entitled “Prohibitions” in SB 451, it does not include a prohibition on a religious course of instruction. So SB 451 has the potential to allow public religious charter schools.
Charter schools would carve students and revenues from public schools and would recruit public school teachers. There is no way that public schools can be as strong after this bleeding. Charter schools might benefit students who attend them, but would harm students who don’t. This was precisely the issue raised by teachers in the recent strike in Los Angeles. That strike resulted in a moratorium on new charter schools.
Moreover, there is plenty of evidence that charter schools don’t deliver superior student performance. In a 2011 study of 36 charter middle schools in 15 states, the researchers compared charter school performance with local public schools. They found that charter schools showed some positive achievement results versus disadvantaged public schools but some negative results versus the more advantaged schools. On average, however, charter middle schools in the study were neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement.
Despite high-sounding language about improving student achievement, the oversight and accountability under the Bill would be weak. HB 451 requires the authorizing School Board to supervise the performance of charter schools, but only allows it to terminate a charter school for failure to perform after five years of performance or lack thereof.
The second major initiative proposed by the Leavers is the creation of Education Savings Accounts (ESA), in use in only five states. These would be different than the vouchers that have been tried in 15 states over the last two decades. Vouchers are usually issued to parents and submitted by them to qualified private or charter schools in partial payment of the tuition. Money flows from the government to the qualified schools when they present the vouchers for payment. With an ESA, the money flows directly to the parents of a qualifying student. The amount would be 75% of the state’s share of per pupil spending — $3,172 in 2018-2019.
The parents would agree to spend the money on tuition to a private school or an institution of higher learning, tutoring, textbooks, educational hardware and software, school uniforms, transportation to school and several other things. The West Virginia Treasurer would be tasked with developing rules for determining if funds have been misused. The Treasurer does not currently perform these duties in connection with any similar program.
As with charter schools, the ESA money provided by the state could be spent on defraying the cost of attending a religious school. This would be an unprecedented failure to respect the separation of church and state embedded in our Constitution. It would be wrong.
The revised SB 451 limits the number of ESAs to 2,500, but there is no means test for eligibility. A substantial number of these ESAs could be created for parents who would otherwise send their children to private school even without an ESA. In that way the ESAs would benefit the wealthy, not those who presently cannot afford private school.
Furthermore, the amount of the state’s contribution to the ESA would be short of the typical West Virginia private school tuition of $4,761, leaving a financial hurdle for low-income parents. Finally, private schools in West Virginia are not evenly distributed. Over half of the state’s private school students attend school in one of five counties. Nineteen counties in the state have no private schools at all.
SB 451 is not only ant-public school, it is anti-public school teacher. Some wags around the Capitol have called the Bill “Mitch Carmichael’s Revenge,” referring to the current Senate President’s annoyance at last year’s teacher’s strike. Not only does SB 451 contain charter school and ESA provisions, which most teachers oppose, it contains a provision making union dues harder to collect and a provision barring teachers for receiving pay even if School Boards close schools during job actions as they did last year.
Clearly the Leavers are in control of the West Virginia Senate and its Education Committee. But SB 451 doesn’t become law unless it is also passed by the House of Delegates and signed by the Governor, who has threatened a veto. There is hope for our public schools. Our leaders simply need to come to their senses to protect them.