Charter schools: receiving an education from the community
Schools in West Virginia have come a long way since the days of one-room schools and the essential "Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic." Now, public schools, private schools and home schooling are all means by which children can receive an education.
The latest addition to that list is the charter school, which has developed in 40 states and Washington, D.C., with the first founded in Minnesota in 1991.
Charter schools are considered public schools and can provide kindergarten through 12th grade instruction. They are created by groups of parents, teachers, administrators, community leaders or a local community-based organization.
Although they are not founded by the local board of education, charter schools do receive funding from the BOE. The schools are required to follow the same curriculum as public schools, but they have a flexibility to alter what and how the students study.
Rachel Tompkins, member and former president of Rural School and Community Trust, has experienced the ups and downs of charter schools in her work across the country.
"Charter schools in rural places are good when they become the community school for places that often have lost their schools through consolidation," Tompkins said. "We worked with a network of charter schools in Colorado that were in communities where kids would have very long bus rides. This is one way where I see charter schools being good for rural communities and may even have application here in Pocahontas County."
Along with every positive, there's a negative.
"The downside of chartering, the critical issue, is who is able to issue the charter?" Tompkins said. "If the state department of education or higher education institutions or non-profit organizations or Indian tribes, all of whom are allowed to charter schools all around the country, if those groups charter, very often, it's extremely disruptive to a local school system that's trying to plan for education in the county because those outside groups don't understand what the resources are in the community and they very often have agendas that don't fit with what local people want."
In the chartering law, two types of organizations can issue a charter. The local school district, which would be the Pocahontas County BOE or a group of parents, teachers or community leaders.
"The people who are enthusiastic about charters will tell you that having a local school district charter is terrible because they'll never charter, but that's not true," Tompkins explained. "Local school districts will set a high bar, but they will charter. My view would be that, if the state of West Virginia is going to move toward a chartering law, they really ought to allow local school districts to charter and then those where it makes sense, as it may here, can do it and those where it just really doesn't make sense, don't need to do it."
The drawback with organizations other than the local school district issuing a charter and beginning a school, according to Tompkins, is the organization's preparedness for the amount of work required to run a school.
"Part of the problem with the creation of charter schools is a quality issue," she said. "Everybody thinks their charter school will be a lot better than the public school, but they don't plan for all the work it takes to make a charter school. You have to be willing to put the time in and a lot of people that have to put the time in aren't getting paid, they have to be volunteers.
"They're going to get a charter school up and going, but it takes so much energy to do it, people get enthusiastic and then they get into it and there's all this work and they don't make it," she continued. "There are a lot of charter schools that are not very high quality."
Because they are public, charter schools have to accept all students in the county.
"Charter schools have to be open to everyone," Tompkins said. "They have fewer rules than a public school would have and they can mix and match funds because they receive private funding and public dollars."
Using the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank as an example, Tompkins explained how a charter school could be started in that area.
"The NRAO could offer its space to have a school. They could set whatever grade levels they wanted, but they would have to be open to whoever signed up and wanted to come," she said. "Suppose someone from Hillsboro wants to go to the school at the NRAO. How does transportation work? That's one of the reasons the local school system needs to be involved in this. Who transports the kids to that school? Are the parents responsible only for getting their kids to that school? What are going to be the rules for transportation?"
Because a charter school receives public funding, that lessens the amount of funding the public schools are given.
"It's one of the reasons why local boards of education aren't enthusiastic about charter schools," Tompkins said. "The places where the local boards of education have charter schools, they've figured out the finances. Colorado subsidized the creation of charter schools with some additional state money so that it didn't hurt the local district that much.
"One way a state can encourage local state boards to be enthusiastic about charter start-ups is to subsidize the start-up," she continued. "Until you get a certain number of pupils into the charter schools, you don't have enough dollars per pupil from the formulas to actually get all the things you need."
Another issue with funding is that the money follows the students. Schools receive a certain amount of dollars per student and if students leave a public school for a charter school, the money goes with them.
"Part of the blessing of charter schools is they tend to be small; part of the problem financially is they tend to be small," Tompkins said. "Suppose you take 50 kids from the high school and start a high school charter. You take those 50 kids from the high school, you'll probably still need the same number of teachers in the high school, but the dollars go with the kids. Losing those kids doesn't allow you to reduce expenses. You have to get a whole bunch of kids out before you can actually lay off teachers and then laying off teachers starts another issue."
West Virginia has utilized the Education Renewal Zone law which does allow local boards of education to create charter-like schools, Tompkins explained.
"The law allows more flexibility to a school board to create schools with fewer rules than the other school have," she added."So there's a sort of charter-lite law already in effect."
The West Virginia State Senate drafted a resolution requesting the Joint Committee on Government and Finance "study the various benefits of authorizing the establishment of charter schools."