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State Senate OKs bill paving the way for learning pods and microschools as education alternatives

MORGANTOWN — The state Senate started clearing the path for two more alternatives to public schools Friday, passing SB 268. It spells out the requirements for microschools and learning pods, and says kids who attend them are exempt from the compulsory school attendance requirements.

Proponents said they offer families another choice; opponents worried they’re another, mostly unregulated blow to public education.

The bill and the floor discussion indicate the two types of schooling fall somewhere between home schools and private schools.

A microschool is a school “initiated by one or more teachers or an entity created to operate a school that charges tuition for the students who enroll and is an alternative to enrolling in a public school, private school, homeschool, or learning pod.”

A learning pod is a voluntary association of parents choosing to group their children together to participate in their elementary or secondary academic studies as an alternative to enrolling in a public school, private school, homeschool, or microschool, including participation in an activity or service provided to the children in exchange for payment.

As it was mentioned on the floor, learning pods are somewhat similar to homeschool co-ops where families may pool their resources and conduct some of their teaching in groups.

Education chair Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, and Judiciary chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan, offered a successful amendment to limit the size of microschools to 100 students.

While the amendment was adopted, some Democrats scratched their heads over it, because, as it was discussed, there are 128 private schools and 85 of them have less than 100 students. They wondered why some of those small private schools wouldn’t benefit from becoming microschools in order to be less-regulated.

Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, offered an amendment to subject microschools and learning pods to the same health and safety requirements as private schools: fire safety inspections, attendance records, instructional time standards, crisis response plans, and so on.

Rucker objected, saying most of these types of schools are very small and many meet in family homes.

The amendment failed in a 14-21 roll call vote.

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, succeeded with an amendment to require video cameras in rooms with special education students.

And Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Randolph, succeeded with an amendment regarding academic assessment results. The bill calls for parents or guardians to submit those. The amendment adds that the microschool or learning pod may submit composite results.

Baldwin, who had been arguing all along that microschools are private schools, vented frustration with this amendment. “I feel like I’m in Bizarro world. This is how private schools do it. … Why don’t we just call it what it is?”

Moving the now-amended bill, discussion turned to insurance requirements and concern that the bill doesn’t require insurance for either type of school.

Rucker said that if the group rents or uses a facility of some type, a church for instance, they would be subject to the insurance requirements of that site. The church would have the option of requiring to carry its own insurance or denying the group access.

Also, she said, public schools are funded with taxpayer dollars so the state has an interest in insurance coverage mandates.

Sen. Owens Brown, D-Ohio, said every parent in every microschool or learning pod should be subject to a background check because teachers in public, private and church schools have been discovered to be abusers or sex offenders.

Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, vented some frustration at the opponents. “A lot of people are fed up with the present public school system,” he said. “All this does is give the parent the right for another option to educate their children. There’s nothing wrong with trying new stuff to get people to where they need to be.”

If neither option proves successful, he said, legislators can come back and change the law just like they do for other failed efforts. “All I’m saying is just give it a chance. … Maybe I’m looking at it in too much of a common-sense way.”

Romano said, “What we’re talking about here is an unregulated school system.” Parents who don’t want to bother homeschooling can just dump their kids off.

It passed 21-13 with two Republicans voting no, and goes to the House. All local senators voted with their party.

Other Senate action

The Senate adopted a Judiciary rewrite of HB 4048, dealing with hunting, and passed it 33-1.

Current law makes it illegal to carry in a vehicle either a loaded rifle or shotgun, a bow with a nocked arrow, or crossbow with a nocked bolt, or an unloaded firearm rifle or shotgun, bow, or crossbow that is not in a case or taken apart and securely wrapped.

The original House bill attempted to make these things legal but Trump said the way it was drafted was potentially unconstitutional so his rewrite simply strikes the two paragraphs covering those areas.

Sen. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, was the sole no vote. It goes back to the House for amendment concurrence.

The Senate also unanimously passed a Judiciary rewrite of HB 4299, dealing with interfering with people attempting to vote. The rewrite reduces the two-paragraph House bill to a single sentence.

It now says anyone who intentionally physically interferes with a voter’s travel on the walkways, driveways, and parking areas adjacent to a building in which a polling place is located with the intention to delay, hinder, interrupt, harass, or intimidate a voter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.

It also goes back to the House for amendment concurrence.

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