Updated: Aug 13, 2020
There are substantial misconceptions among parents and citizens about the nature of charter schools in West Virginia. This article identifies some of the most commonly believed myths based on survey data and provides important clarifications to inform parents and citizens in West Virginia on this critical issue in public education.
Myth #5: WV Parents and Citizens Are Against Establishing Charter Schools
A very common myth is that most West Virginia parents and citizens do not want charter schools established in their communities, but this is actually a misnomer. Citizens and parents that oppose charter schools make up less than a majority. Several special interest groups have circulated misleading statistics to overstate the opposition to charter schools so that the many parents and teachers who support charter schools feel isolated and alone. Despite this misinformation, reliable survey data from multiple sources suggests that there are approximately as many citizens who support charter schools as oppose them in West Virginia. Additionally, there are many people who have not made up their mind about charter schools and so neither the opposition nor those in support make up a majority in West Virginia on the issue. For example, a Metro News Survey from 2019 found that 35% of citizens support charter schools, 40% oppose charter schools, and 25% are undecided on the issue. West Virginia Academy conducted a survey and found that about 25% of parents in Morgantown not only support charter schools, but would in fact enroll their child in a charter school if one were established in their community. Hence, the idea that most parents and citizens oppose charter schools is inaccurate.
Myth #4: WV Charter Schools are for-profit entities that exploit public education funds
Another very common misconception about charter schools is that for-profit organizations would use the charter system to exploit education funds and produce huge profits for wealthy shareholders. There are states that allow for-profit entities to function as charter schools, but West Virginia is not one of them. Under West Virginia law, a charter school must be a non-profit organization that is a public charity and a charter school cannot have private owners. Additionally, the charter organization must obtain 501(c)(3) status through the approval process with the Internal Revenue Service and the charter school cannot pay its governing board. Lastly, the governing board and officers all must adhere to strict conflicts of interest policies. These measures are designed to prevent individuals from enriching themselves either directly or indirectly through the charter school system. The law is very clear that a charter school must be a non-profit organization and so any claims that charter schools are for-profit entities in West Virginia are false.
Myth #3: WV Charter schools are elitist institutions that only take top students
Another big myth circulating about West Virginia Charter Schools is that they are elitist institutions that only admit high performing students, students without IEPs, or kids from wealthy families. While charter schools can provide an outstanding education that is on par with elite private schools if done properly, the admissions and enrollment processes cannot discriminate against students based on their academic ability, disability, or socio-economic status. Charter schools are open to all students without respect to wealth, academic performance, behavioral concerns, or membership in a protected class. There is no tuition for attending a charter school as they are funded through public sources and any fees must be commensurate with fees in non-charter public schools. Additionally, charter schools in West Virginia cannot select their students or remove under-performing students as enrollment is up to the families and not the institution. If there are more applicants than the charter school has capacity to serve, then student selection for new enrollments must be based on a randomized lottery system. There is a preference for children of staff or governing board members, but even that preference is limited to only 5% of new enrollments in a given year. Hence, all applicants are essentially on equal footing with the same opportunity to be admitted without regard to ability or economic status. Also, there is no means of “kicking out” students who underperform or have behavioral issues as is the case for charter schools in some other states. Charter schools in West Virginia may provide elite student outcomes, but the idea that they are elitist or exclusive institutions is simply a myth.
Myth #2: WV Charter Schools Are Less Accountable than Traditional Public Schools
There is a widely held belief that charter schools lack the accountability and educational standards required of traditional public schools, but a careful look at the measures of accountability for charter schools indicates that the opposite is actually the case. Public charter schools must comply with the same accountability standards as traditional public schools—including annual audits, assessments of student outcomes, and reporting of results through the WV state system—but charter schools also have several additional layers of accountability that go beyond the standards for non-charter public schools.
First, enrollment at a charter school is voluntary rather than mandatory under the law, so the only way a charter school can be established or continue is if large numbers of parents choose to enroll their children. Once enrolled, attendance is mandatory just like at non-charter public schools, but students can transfer out if the public charter school isn’t meeting their needs. This element of choice provides a market-driven measure of quality as parents and students can vote with their feet. Also, the governing board of the charter school must include multiple parents of students attending the school. Second, the West Virginia charter school law provides for oversight directly from the county school boards in the school districts the charter school serves rather than a system of oversight by lifetime educational bureaucrats and layers of school administrators. This flatter organizational structure ensures there is a direct link between voters and the body overseeing the charter school’s activities. Lastly, the authorizing document for any charter school must include specific academic goals and expectations for student outcomes that exceed the outcomes at non-charter public schools. The flexibility in educational options, including with respect to teacher and instructor qualifications, is permitted under the charter system only to the extent that student outcomes are improved over other options already available. If a charter school under-performs compared to traditional public schools in West Virginia, then it will typically go on probation and if this does not improve then its charter can be revoked.
Hence, public charter schools in WV are substantially more accountable to parents, community leaders, and the public in general than traditional public schools and not less so.
Myth #1: WV Charter schools take money from public schools
One of the most common responses by participants in a survey about why they oppose charter schools is the concern that charter schools take funding from public schools, but this notion is actually a myth. WV charter schools are public schools under the law and so allocating funds to charter schools does not diminish funding for public education. Rather, the school-level funds are allocated within the public system to follow the child where the child is enrolled. Consider the difference in the impact on public education funding between a parent enrolling their child in a public charter school versus enrolling in a private school or homeschooling. If a parent enrolls their child in private school or homeschools their child, the public education system does lose the funds that would otherwise be provided to educate that child. Alternatively, if that same parent were to enroll their child in a charter school, then the funding for that child remains inside the public education system under the direction of the local county’s board of education.
While it is true that most of the per-child funds within the public system are allocated to the school where the child attends, this reallocation of funding does not diminish public education funding overall nor does it reduce public teacher jobs. The school-level reallocation of funds is essentially equivalent to allocations that commonly occur whenever any public school boundary is changed or a new public school is established in response to growth. School districts have advance notice of enrollments at charter schools so they can budget for non-charter public schools accordingly. Additionally, a portion of the funds for each student are retained within the school district and the school board for purposes of providing oversight.