CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The West Virginia Senate on Monday passed a bill that would increase the number of public charter schools and let them operate online.
The bill passed on a 19-14 vote with one member absent. It now goes back to the House of Delegates, which must consider tweaks by the Senate.
Three Republicans voted against the bill, including Mason County Sen. Amy Grady, a public school teacher.
The bill would increase the number of charter schools allowed every three years from three to 10. It also would allow for online-only charter schools, among other things. Each of the two allowed statewide online schools could enroll up to 5% of the statewide public school enrollment.
A new state board would be established to authorize the online charter schools, but Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker said those would still be within the public school system and would be accountable to the state Board of Education. The bill also would call for an audit two years after the first public charter school begins operations.
Grady asked whether the bill would let residents have a say in whether a charter school is established through a referendum or other means. Rucker, a Jefferson County Republican, replied that public hearings must be held if a charter school application is made. She said the number of charter schools depends on whether the public wants them.
“This is a really exciting opportunity that I’m looking forward to seeing happen hopefully one day in West Virginia,” Rucker said.
Harrison County Democrat Mike Romano questioned Rucker for 25 minutes on different aspects of the bill before urging its rejection.
Republican Gov. Jim Justice signed a bill in 2019 that allows for the creation of charter schools. The signing came after a gridlocked special legislative session on education that drew heavy protests from public school teachers.
Educators and Democrats argued that the move to install charters was driven by outside interests that will steer money away from public schools.
“This is a great big experiment to which nobody knows what the answers are,” Romano said. “We’re playing with anywhere from $200 million to $400 million of our tax dollars. And that’s crazy.”
Currently there are no charter schools in West Virginia and one application has been submitted so far. In December, the boards of education in Monongalia and Preston counties rejected an application for a charter school by the West Virginia Academy. The academy is suing the state Department of Education over the decision.