Liz McCormick Published

Charter School Expansion Bill Moves Forward

House Education Chair Del. Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, speaks to amendments offered to HB 2012 during the House floor session on Feb. 15, 2021. The bill would expand West Virginia's public charter school law.

A bill to expand West Virginia’s public charter school law is on the fast track in the West Virginia House of Delegates. In the second week of this year’s state legislative session, leadership has gone full steam ahead with HB 2012.

The bill would allow up to ten charter schools to be established in the state over a three-year period — seven more than what’s currently in state law. The bill also permits the establishment of virtual charter schools, and it creates a dispute option for charters. If a county school board finds that a charter school is not living up to its contract, the dispute option prevents the school from being shut down outright, and instead gives the school time to address those issues over a five-year period.

The House of Delegates on Monday considered six amendments to the bill. Of the six amendments, the four proposed by Democrats were all rejected.

Democrats tried to require three of the ten schools be placed in districts of critical need, as well as require charters to outline in their contracts whether they would provide transportation to students.

House Education Chair Del. Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, pointed out that a transportation requirement for public schools is already in state code, however, and would include public charter schools as well.

Democrats also tried to reinsert the option for county boards to revoke a charter immediately rather than have the dispute option.

But the amendment that garnered the most debate was one offered by Minority Chair of House Education Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell. His amendment would have removed virtual charter schools from the bill.

“I would strongly urge the adoption of this amendment as I feel that it will give us time to first correct our current system with virtual schools and then we can step into this,” Hornbuckle said.

Minority Chair of House Education Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, proposes an amendment to HB 2012 removing virtual charter school as an option. The amendment failed on a roll call vote of 25 to 72.

Perry Bennett
WV Legislative Photography
Minority Chair of House Education Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, proposes an amendment to HB 2012 removing virtual charter schools as an option. The amendment failed on a roll call vote of 25 to 72.

Educating kids through the state virtually and remotely this year and last presented enormous challenges for state education systems. The inconsistencies with learning models this fall resulted in one-third of K-12 students in West Virginia failing at least one core subject, according to the West Virginia Department of Education.

Hornbuckle made the case that, given the challenges with virtual education during the pandemic, virtual should be removed from the bill and instead have the legislation focus solely on perfecting proposed brick-and-mortar charter schools.

“We have an issue with connectivity in our state,” Hornbuckle said. “Broadband is an absolute must. I know that we’re trying to address that this session, and I applaud those efforts, but I think it would be more appropriate to expand our [virtual] charter school program once we have that in place … I think the purpose of this bill is to expand charter schools, and if done in a responsible manner, could really, really benefit our kids.”

But for the GOP leadership in West Virginia, it’s about making sure there are varying schooling options.

“I’d like to oppose the gentleman’s amendment,” House Education Chair Ellington said, “because it pretty much defeats most of the purpose of the bill.”

Ellington and others during the debate said the aim is to create more options for families, and by expanding brick-and-mortar options as well as virtual, it meets that goal.

“Look at the pandemic that we’re in now and the shift to virtual schools and virtual learning,” Del. Caleb Hanna, R-Nicholas, said, “This gives people more choice. If we had this type of choice in the pandemic we’re in, we would see much better outcomes in education in West Virginia right now.”

Some Democrats voiced equity concerns as it relates to resources, such as access to devices like a laptop or iPad. Hanna pointed to a section in the bill that confirmed students attending charter schools would have that access.

“Most of these programs that offer virtual charter schools add that into the cost already,” Hanna said. “They provide those materials for the students … If you look [in the bill], it even says that virtual public charter schools are subject to the same requirements as non-virtual public charter schools. There’s virtually no difference.”

Del. Cody Thompson, D-Randolph, argued the bill would not, however, support equitable broadband access.

“The charter schools providing laptops and those resources, that’s amazing,” Thompson said. “But I highly doubt that charter schools are going to be doing infrastructure for broadband to hook up half of the students who do not have access to broadband or high speed internet, which will again leave out students’ educational opportunities.”

Ultimately, the amendment failed on a roll call vote of 25 to 72.

The remaining two amendments that were adopted by the body dealt with holding charter schools accountable by requiring a charter school board to investigate any serious issues. The other amendment clarified that if a charter wants to serve two counties, but one county rejects it, that charter must locate to the county where it’s approved.

House Bill 2012 will be up for a full vote in the House chamber Tuesday.