Liz McCormick Published

First Attempt At Charter School Fails In West Virginia, A Year After Law Passed

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On Monday, two county school boards struck down the state’s first application to establish a public charter school. The proposed program, dubbed West Virginia Academy, would have been located in Morgantown and served Mongonalia and Preston counties, focusing on academic achievement across K-12 classrooms, including an International Baccalaureate curriculum.

School boards in Monongalia and Preston counties, however, unanimously rejected the charter proposal, saying the application did not meet 7 out of the 10 evaluation criteria required in the proposal process.

Board members pointed to a lack of demand and support from local families based on a social media survey West Virginia Academy conducted that found less than 1 percent of families in the two counties supported establishing a charter school. They also said the goal and vision for the proposed charter is a mission already being met by traditional public schools in the area. Board members said West Virginia Academy provided an unclear outline of operations, governance, a financial model, and how specifically curriculum would be taught, among other concerns. They pointed to a lack of wraparound services identified for students and no clear explanation of what digital devices, such as iPads or Chromebooks, would be available to students.

Overall, board members turned the proposal down due to a lack of clear, detailed strategies and timelines of how the school would be run and how funding would be distributed.

“There were just a lot of holes for me in this application as to how all those needs were going to be met,” said Monongalia County Board President Nancy Walker. “Over the years, as board members, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the different learning methods needed to connect with different students, and this seems to rely basically on one delivery model, and I was very concerned about that.”

In an email to West Virginia Public Broadcasting, West Virginia Academy President John Treu expressed disappointment in the decision by the two boards and said his proposal was “based on applications from schools that went on to become some of the top public schools in the country.”

He also claims that, under state law, the application has already been deemed approved because of a period of inaction by the combined boards of Monongalia and Preston counties. In an email, however, from the West Virginia Department of Education, the WVDE told West Virginia Public Broadcasting that the two boards had until Nov. 30 to make a decision on the charter school proposal, which they met.

Treu said he plans to contact the WVDE about his concerns over the application process. He said he thinks “the decision for whether a charter school opens should be up to the parents in [that] community as opposed to a panel of district-level bureaucrats.”

A spokesperson from the state department of education said decisions by the county boards are “final.”

How Did We Get Here?

After years of heated debate, in 2019, Gov. Jim Justice signed the state’s first public charter school law, following in the footsteps of 44 other states nationwide and the District of Columbia, according to the National Charter School Resource Center.

West Virginia’s law works this way: up to three public charter schools can be established between now and 2023 with an opportunity for more after that.

Proposals first start at the county board of education level, which act as that proposed charter school’s authorizer, and then the proposal moves on to the West Virginia Department of Education for consideration.

To be approved, charters must meet requirements laid out by the West Virginia Board of Education Policy 3300 and follow the West Virginia Standard Public Charter School Application process.

What Is West Virginia Academy?

John Treu moved to Morgantown with his family about five years ago. He and his wife Heidi were originally from Utah and Nevada respectively, but they moved around — New York, Washington D.C., Maryland and now West Virginia. Both are educators.

Heidi taught middle school science and health in traditional public schools and one charter school. She now homeschools their six children. John teaches accounting at West Virginia University.

“We’ve experienced a lot of different school systems,” John Treu said. “And [we’ve] seen some of the strengths and weaknesses of those individual systems.”

Listen to the original story, which aired ahead of the vote on Nov. 30, 2020.
Listen to the original story, which aired ahead of the vote on Nov. 30, 2020.

The Treus hoped to open the state’s first public charter school in Morgantown, called West Virginia Academy. Most charter schools, according to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, are nonprofits. Treu’s school would be the same. Under the West Virginia law, it would have a governing board made up of local parents and residents with expertise in primary, secondary, and higher education as well as finance, law and accounting.

All charter schools are public schools that aim to offer teachers flexibility in how curriculum is delivered. Oftentimes charters emphasize certain fields like engineering or performing arts.

Treu said he wanted to establish a charter school in West Virginia for two reasons: he thinks the current public model in the state gives too much money to administrators as opposed to student resources and teachers, and he wants to improve student achievement.

“We have extremely high graduation rates, but really low student outcomes,” he said. “Which suggests that not very much is being expected of our students. We believe that students will respond to greater rigor and higher expectations.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, West Virginia’s graduation rate was at least 90 percent or higher in 2018 — above the national average, which was 85 percent. According to federal data from 2019, West Virginia’s 8th graders ranked below average on math and reading scores. The last available reading and math score data from the Nation’s Report Card for 12th graders in West Virginia was available in 2013. Both scores from that year were also below the national average.

The state’s overall ACT test scores for the class of 2020, however, were just above the national average but fell short in the mathematics score.

In a release from the West Virginia Department of Education last year, the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission reported 52.6 percent of West Virginia students enrolled in in-state institutions of higher education in fall 2018. That same year, 41 percent of students continued their education to achieve advanced credentials or certifications, joined the workforce or enrolled in the military upon graduation.

Treu is hoping West Virginia Academy can tackle some of the issues seen in West Virginia’s K-12 education system. His school would be open to any student who applied, and after it reaches capacity, future applications would be placed into a lottery system. In the first year, the school would offer grades kindergarten through 8th grade with the goal of expanding to K-12 over a five-year period and max capacity of 1,420 students.

“That’s really the allure to it,” he said. “We have the flexibility to maximize student outcomes and pursue optimizing student outcomes in a way that we believe is appropriate, and that the data suggests is superior to the way it’s being done currently in public schools.”

The primary school, Treu said, would offer a curriculum called Core Knowledge. His goal is to focus on bolstering foundational knowledge in core subjects, including language arts, history and geography, and science.

According to the creators of the program, “the Core Knowledge approach puts knowledge at the heart of schooling and details to teachers a clear grade-by-grade sequence of what students need to know in each grade.”

For the middle school years, West Virginia Academy would offer the International Baccalaureate Middle Years program, called IB. For the high school years, the school would follow the IB Diploma program, which is academically rigorous and internationally recognized by higher education institutions worldwide.

The school would be subject to the same regulations as traditional public schools in West Virginia specifically as it relates to safety and needs for students with disabilities, Treu said. But otherwise, administrative costs, salaries and how they deliver content is up to the governing board to decide.

If student achievement doesn’t show improvement, charter schools, unlike traditional public schools that are rarely closed over low achievement, are given a warning to fix it or face closure.

Since West Virginia Academy would be designated as a public charter school, it would be funded by public, or state, dollars.

But it’s that issue that’s drawn the most concern from those in opposition.

Charters Versus Traditional Public Schools

In October, Treu held a public forum in Morgantown on his proposed charter school, and he was met with a rally against it. Morgantown High School art teacher Sam Brunett was there.

“When the governor called that special session [to consider charter school legislation] after two strikes against charter schools, I think we all knew in Monongalia County, this would be one of the first places they attempted a charter school, and lo and behold, here we are tonight,” Brunett said from behind a podium outside University High School.

Brunett is also the president of the American Federation of Teachers chapter in Monongalia County.

Like many teacher union supporters around the nation, Brunett is staunchly opposed to charter schools and argues they would take money away from traditional public schools instead of focusing more resources on improving the state’s current education system, which he describes as deprived and struggling.

“[This is] funneling away money from an already deprived education system and giving it to basically a private institution,” he said. “We’re adamantly against that type of procedure. We’re looking at upwards of $11 million to be siphoned from Monongalia County Schools after this [charter] school is established all the way. What happens to our existing schools when those types of things happen? We see programs like art, band, our physical education, sports, all those things are just the first thing to go.”

Brunett is not alone in his concerns. Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association filed an “intent to sue” after the legislation to allow charters was signed by the governor.

Lee said the state constitution demands that every child, no matter their background, be given the right to a free, public education. He’s concerned charters would “cherry pick” students.

“If you allow me to handpick the students that I want to teach in my school, knowing that I don’t have to take any of the special needs kids, any discipline problems and kids without good parental support, I’m going to show much bigger gains than a public school where we take and educate everyone,” Lee said. “We believe that our Constitution is clear that you provide a free, thorough, efficient public education for every child, not just a select few.”

West Virginia Academy, however, according to John Treu, would admit anyone. But Lee said that even still, he doesn’t approve of charters because as he sees it, designating them as “public” is just a way to make sure they get public dollars, taking away from traditional public schools that he thinks need more support.

This concern is not unfounded.

Would Charter Schools Work In West Virginia?

Mark Berends directs the Center for Research on Educational Opportunity at the University of Notre Dame and has done extensive research into charter schools. He said that yes, public charters would in effect take away, or reroute, funding from traditional public schools, but he said if the feeling among the public is to establish a charter, then it should be up to the public.

“I think it is public money,” Berends said. “If there’s schooling options put in place that are really effective, and those happen to be charter schools, then parents should have the right to be able to choose those schools for their children.”

It’s unclear, though, if a charter school would be effective in West Virginia. Berends said there hasn’t been enough research to determine if charters are effective in rural areas — and West Virginia is a mostly rural state.

Berends said there is research though that shows virtual charter schools, which are seeing a recent boom due to the coronavirus pandemic, do poorly in rural areas.

“Looking at achievement results, virtual charter schools in Indiana, after switching from a public school into a virtual charter school, loses about 16 percentile points in mathematics and also significant losses in reading,” he said.

Most research finds that charter schools improve student learning greatest in elementary and middle school, but he said little research supports positive impacts in high school.

Berends also said there’s research to support that charter schools don’t serve special education students well.

Because West Virginia’s charter school law limits the number of public charter schools, Berends said the state is in a unique position to perfect a model and get it right, if such schools are something state residents support.

“We have learned a lot about charter schools over the last three decades, and Americans love choices. They love choices at the grocery store, and they like choices for the schools that their children attend,” he said. “I don’t really see [charters] going away, despite opposition, but I think it would behoove the people that are going to be running these charter schools to get it right.”