In the spring 2021 legislative session, the state of West Virginia enacted several changes to its charter school law. The updated legislation was signed into law by Governor Justice and will be effective for future school years. Most of the media attention, with respect to the updated law, related to three major changes: the expansion of the total number of potential new charter schools from three to ten every three years; the introduction of up to two virtual charter schools statewide; and the establishment of a state-level charter school board to provide oversight to local authorizers. However, there were other important changes to the law designed to strengthen charter schools and limit the power of local school boards to interfere with charter school operations that went largely unreported.
One very important change diminished the revocation powers of the local school boards that serve as the charter school authorizers. Charter schools are granted a charter that functions like a contract between the school and the authorizer for a term of years, which is typically five years with a renewable term so long as the charter school complies with the law and meets its performance targets. Under the prior law, the local authorizer had broad authority to revoke a charter in the middle of the term, which power could have been used to force a charter school to close even in the middle of the school year. While the revocation powers still exist under the new law in some instances, the authorizer's ability to revoke an approved charter is much more limited than under the prior version of the law. For example, if a charter school presents a serious risk to the health and safety of its students, funds are misappropriated, or there are serious and persistent academic deficiencies then the authorizer could still revoke a charter and close the school. However, easily curable concerns or minor technical violations can no longer provide the basis for revoking a charter. This change to the law provides greater certainty that a charter school that opens will be able to remain in operation for the long term and should remove the possibility of a charter school being closed by a school district on the basis of a minor technicality.
Another change to the law appoints the charter school's governing board as the local education agency (or LEA) rather than the local school district. The LEA serves an administrative function with respect to various sources of funding. This change means that charter schools in West Virginia will be less reliant on actions taken by the local school districts with respect to various grants and other funding sources. This treatment is consistent with the law in California and provides greater autonomy for each individual charter school.
The new charter law also directs the WVDE to issue new regulations and explicitly prohibits the WVDE from passing any rules that conflict with state code. The rules issued under the old law as Policy 3300 were largely unfavorable to charter schools and, at least in some ways, may have potentially conflicted with the charter law as originally enacted. While the requirement that any WVDE rules comply with the state code was already implicitly in place under the prior law, the various unfavorable provisions in Policy 3300 may likely have motivated the legislature to make this requirement explicit. The new law also directs the WVDE to issue new rules more quickly than under the old law and permits the WVDE to file emergency rules if needed to meet the more aggressive deadlines. These provisions should reign in some of the rules that would have negatively impacted charter school autonomy or created additional and unnecessary layers of red tape and review for charter schools.
Taken together, these subtle changes to the charter law translate to greater flexibility, autonomy, and staying power for charter schools throughout West Virginia going forward. This is good news for families in the mountain state who favor school choice. As a charter school that was approved by operation of law last fall, West Virginia Academy may likely benefit from these various changes as it endeavors to open its doors by the Fall of 2022.