Expert: Charter schools have pros, cons

On Friday, Gov. Jim Justice signed the omnibus education bill that narrowly cleared Senate chambers four days earlier. With the signing, the governor kicked up the atmosphere just like the tornado that touched down in the Charleston area while lawmakers were making their arguments at the capitol.

The weather maker this time will be charter schools. Said bill allows the possibility of three such schools by 2023, with potentially three more every three years.

An A for accountability

Charter schools are those public institutions of learning that run separate from “standard” schools in the district. They aren’t beholden to state-mandated policies or benchmarks. They can have a free-form curriculum and a year-round calendar, if their leaders want. They can exist solely online, even.

Any group in the Mountain State thinking about starting one up, however, needs to do its homework first, Andrew Saultz said. Saultz, who teaches educational leadership at Oregon’s Pacific University, a small, private college near Portland, also studies equity and accountability issues in public schools and charter schools across the U.S.

“Accountability,” is the watch-word for the former high school social studies teacher, who was also twice-elected to local school boards on the way to his doctorate. The idea of a charter school can be noble and lofty, he said — but a couple policy anchors wouldn’t hurt. After all, the educator said, a school is still a school. “I personally don’t buy into charters as being a great thing or a terrible thing,” he said, “but you need to have measurements and standards in place. It’s still about accountability.”

School days

The nation’s first charter school was founded in St. Paul, Minn., in 1992. Today, around 7,000 such schools operate in 44 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. More than 3 million students in the U.S. get their education from charters, the center said.

Charter companies are mainly managed by private, nonprofit companies. In recent years, charter schools have come under the watchdog microscope after a series of high-profile failures and charges of money mismanagement.

Still, there are success stories found in inner-city Washington, D.C., where charters thrive, and in rural Tidioute, Pa., near the New York state border, in a region that closely mirrors West Virginia. In the Mountain State, Saultz urged planners of such schools to watch the amount of money a company puts into its advertising and marketing budget for recruitment purposes.

Keep an eye on “cream-skimming,” the practice of plucking the best and brightest (read, the kids from the more affluent families) for the charter school, he said.

Stay away from the virtual charters, he cautioned. The largest online school in neighboring Ohio went dark last year, causing 12,000 students to be set adrift. And be mindful when hiring teachers, Saultz said, recounting a school in Arizona didn’t do background checks, with results were predictably disastrous: “You can imagine what happened.” Tardy on charters?

This May in Morgantown, Craig Blair, the 15th District Republican and Senate Finance Chair from Martinsburg, said what he thought was happening was a collective cry for charter schools in West Virginia after all — even if it didn’t always start out that way. He was referring to statewide protests over earlier incarnations of the education bill.

“It’s sort of odd,” he said. “They’ll tell you, ‘We don’t want charter schools.’ Then they’ll describe what they do want, which sounds like a charter school.”