Don’t Divert Money From Public Schools in W.Va.

On Friday Jan. 25, the West Virginia Senate Education Committee voted 7-5 to pass what leadership is calling the “Education Reform Omnibus Bill.” It passed along party lines, despite many only seeing its final version hours before. In fact, the meeting had to be recessed in order for all members to receive a copy of the correct version of the 143-page bill.

This bill is being touted as a comprehensive education reform crafted to give parents and teachers “choice” and empowerment; however, who really gets a choice, a voice, or benefit? To answer this question, you need look no further than the lead sponsor, Senate Education Chair Patricia Rucker. She is a member of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and was named ALEC’s Legislator of the Week in February 2018. “Experts” were brought in from out of state whose sole job is to travel the country and “sell” charters and privatization. Not one actual educational expert was able to comment, testify, or share their thoughts on this bill or its provisions. No West Virginia teacher, school service personnel, parent, or state Department of Education representative was given the chance to testify, despite the drastic impacts this bill would have on public education.

This bill is called an “omnibus bill” because it groups many vastly different issues into one bill, from pay raises to charters and educational savings accounts, to anti-union language. The bill fails the litmus test for a single object provision of the West Virginia Constitution, Article VI Section 30, which requires that bills feature or focus on single issues so that each may stand and pass or fail on their own merit and be transparent for both legislators and the public to judge.

There are many components of this bill I’d like to address, but first I want to focus on what this bill doesn’t address: It doesn’t address the lack of adequate mental health services in our schools. West Virginia ranks No. 1 highest in childhood poverty in children aged to six, and fourth in overall highest childhood poverty. One in four West Virginian children have faced an adverse childhood traumatic experience. We also rank second highest in the nation for children being raised by their grandparents, mostly due to the opioid crisis that is crippling our state. We are severely understaffed in the areas of school counselors, school psychologists, school social workers, nurses, and prevention resources officers. This so called “Education Reform Bill” does nothing to address the inadequate mental health care in our schools.

Research also points out that lower class sizes increase student achievement. Lower class sizes increase the amount of individualized attention and instruction a teacher can provide a student. Not only does this bill not address lowering class sizes, it actually raises them. If passed, the Omnibus Bill would increase class cap sizes in grades first through sixth from 25 to 28 and allow for three students over this limit in extraordinary circumstances. How will a classroom of 28 to 31 first-grade children increase their success? We need smaller class sizes, not larger ones, to meet our students’ growing needs. Smaller class sizes provide more academic, social, emotional and behavioral support to our students, especially those in the earliest grades.

Perhaps the most troubling provisions of this bill are its inclusion language that will allow West Virginia’s taxpayer dollars to funnel into charter schools and out of public schools. Charter schools privatize or outsource public monies to private, for-profit institutions. Proponents of charters get caught up in semantics and call them “public charters” simply because they take public tax payer money. It was clarified during the Senate Education Committee meeting that once established, charters are governed by their governing boards or entities that set them up and once they receive public funding (funding that again is leaving our public schools), there is little accountability to any higher authority in regard to their finances, employees, employment, and even curriculum. Taxpayer-funded schools, public or private with limited accountability, spell disaster for West Virginia school systems and are both fiscally and morally irresponsible.

The problem for public schools with outsourcing is there is no mechanism to replace the money leaving the public school. For example: Let’s say a district’s per pupil spending is estimated at $10,000. There is no way for a public school to reduce its costs by $10,000. One less student on a school bus won’t reduce its overall operating costs; you can’t pay a teacher less who has a few students less in their classroom; you can’t spend less on air conditioning or heat; you can’t pay custodians less; and administrators can’t safely work part time. When a charter school opens in a community where it’s not needed or wanted, the district is forced to spend more money on buildings and administration than for student services.

So how do schools or boards of education survive? They cut programs. We have seen this across the country as public schools are forced to cut art, physical education, vocational, innovation and STEAM programs, and services for special education students. That leaves weaker schools that are less equipped to meet their students’ needs.

Research has shown time and again that once a student is unsuccessful in a charter school, whether based on behaviors, academics, or other factors, he or she is sent back to public schools that now don’t have the funding or resources for these students. What we have seen in states like Ohio, Arizona and Oklahoma and cities like Los Angeles is that once established, a charter can “kick out” a student or close altogether, often mid-year, leading to an influx of students back to public schools without the money to educate them. In data published last year, nearly half of Ohio’s charter schools received “poor” and “ineffective” ratings during the 2016-2017 school year; in another independent study of Ohio’s 276 charter schools, over 90 percent received “F’s” in indicators met and “D’s-F’s” in students’ performance index. In a study conducted of Arizona’s charter schools by the Arizona Charter School Association, in March of 2018 more than 350 Arizona charter Schools closed, many for financial reasons, sending an influx of students back to public schools that now have less funding.

Another related provision in this bill is the establishment of Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs). What an educational savings account promises in this bill is that students in special education can receive an ESA, or voucher to use at the discretion of the parents or caretaker. The problem with this is the lack of accountability outlined in the bill. Under this provision, parents would be able to take money allocated to educate their special needs child and “choose” the educational services for their child. While there is little doubt there are extraordinary parents of exceptional children, what happens when parents aren’t committed to or lack the basic education or understanding of what it takes to educate and care for their child’s academic, emotional, and behavioral needs? What “choice” does the child have?

Now is the time to ask our legislators why they are willing to pass legislation permitting privatization, vouchers, and charter schools to open in West Virginia when they have been proven time and again to be disastrous for public education and fiscally irresponsible to the taxpayers of their states. We must push back against this and other legislation that divests in education and our students in the name of private profit.

Schools are the hubs of our communities, providing their students with academic instruction, social, emotional and behavioral support, food, clothing, and medical care. We must protect our public schools and our students that rely on them. We are at a crossroads in West Virginia and only we can decide what the future of public education will look like. We must stand up and fight privatization and not fall for the promises that charter schools have made in other states. Let’s learn from our long history of being exploited for profit of our natural resources and rise up, like West Virginians can, to protect our most precious resources ­– our children, the future of our state.

Jenny Craig is a special education teacher at Wheeling Middle School. She also is president of the Ohio County Education Association and a West Virginia United Caucus Steering Committee member.

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