In the shadows of COVID, bills have passed during the 2021 Legislative Session which will move West Virginia backwards.

From the weakening or elimination of state licensing for electricians, plumbers, crane operators, elevator technicians, among others, to weakening our drinking water standards, to creating a new layer of government with an Intermediate Court that no one wants (except insurance companies) which will cost tens of millions of tax dollars every year. As bad as those bills are, no bill has the potential to damage our collective future or waste more of our tax dollars than charter schools. The obsession of the Republican Majority with charter schools and private school vouchers could result in the loss of nearly one-half of our public school funding.

Charter schools have mixed results around the country, at best.

Ohio lost $4 billion on charters and rural states have had almost no success. In 2019, county boards of education were permitted to approve applications for and oversee charter schools preserving local control of education. The bill passed this session eliminates local oversight by creating a new board, appointed by the governor, to approve charter schools regardless of will of the citizens. Local control and oversight of public education have ended.

In-person charter schools are limited to 10% of each county’s public school population, but, as bad as that could be for public schools, the bill also authorizes two statewide virtual charter schools for up to another 10% of the statewide public school population. Those numbers should be alarming.

If in-person and virtual charter schools take just half of the permitted public school students (10%), more than $200 million will be taken from public school budgets every year with little accountability. Although the charter school itself may be not-for-profit, in a clever ruse, for-profit Education Service Providers or ESPs can be hired to run it with our tax dollars.

Most important, virtual charters will receive the same amount of money (around $7,400 per student) as in-person charters, yet virtual classes are conducted over the internet without the need for school buildings, desks, cafeterias, janitors, liability insurance and all other costs of a brick and mortar school. Virtual charters won’t even hire the same number of teachers. In Florida, for example, each virtual charter teacher instructed over 250 students. Staggering profits will be the priority. Someone’s pocket is getting lined with tax dollars and no one cared.

Amazingly, the Republican Majority did not to know that more than $200 million in public school tax dollars were being shifted to private, for-profit ESPs if charters take just one-half of the students permitted under the bill. According to the State Board of Education, more than 6,000 public school teachers and service personnel would lose their jobs as a result. If the teacher/student ratio in virtual charters is like Florida — 50 teachers will replace over 3,000 public school educators and staff, most of whom will leave the state. Add the $130 million being taken from the public school system for Republican’s private school voucher program, and the public school system could evaporate.

As West Virginia ventures into this great unknown, the negatives have not even been acknowledged let alone considered. For example the effects on high school sports of the loss of 20% of the public school population would be devastating. Undoubtedly, student-athletes will go charter or private schools and not play for their local teams. Coaches will lose their jobs or be required to take on additional responsibilities to keep their jobs. Every dollar that goes to a charter school student is eliminated from our public schools which will reduce funds for facilities, uniforms, medical care, and other sports related needs. The loss will be felt by every school.

While the legacy of the Republican Majority has been one of voting contrary to facts, their obsession with charter schools in our state has led to a grand deception. They have underfunded public education for years. They now claim it’s broken and, in a move to defend it, preach school choice. The smart course, given the Majority’s obsession for charter schools and vouchers, would be a slow march with common sense limits on in-person charter schools and, more important, on the number of students allowed to attend virtual charters. Unfortunately, those limits were eliminated under pressure from Senate Republican Leadership.

Public schools are the backbone of our nation, providing a future for our children, but the majority’s plan will make public schools a place for those not lucky enough — or rich enough — to escape. It will be a modern form of segregation, and we all will pay the price when undereducated students become unproductive adults.

12th District Sen. Mike Romano, a Democrat, serves Braxton, Clay, Gilmer, Harrison and Lewis counties

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