The West Virginia Academy, a new charter school, will open in Morgantown later this month. Photo by Trenton Straight

More than a thousand students are expected to attend West Virginia’s first four charter schools when they open later this month for the coming school year. The schools have been several years in the making, following a series of controversial bills and legal battles.

They’re one of many steps lawmakers have taken to expand education alternatives in the state, but after a judge put a controversial school voucher program on hold, charter schools are poised to be West Virginia’s first large experiment with diverting public school money to other educational options.

Three years ago, West Virginia’s public school laws were changed, allowing the state to approve charter schools. More recently, state lawmakers passed a bill increasing the number of charters that can be authorized every three years. 

Proponents of charter schools say they would provide students with a richer, more individualized education. Others argue that these schools would worsen existing problems in the state’s public education system.

While much is unclear about how charters would impact West Virginia, enrollment projections suggest that these schools would worsen student population declines facing school districts throughout the state — as well as siphon money away from already-struggling districts.

What are charter schools?

Charter schools serve as alternatives to traditional public education.

Like public schools, charter schools receive funding from the state. But they function autonomously from county school systems and are free of many state regulations.

These schools often serve fewer students and offer more individualized education. 

In West Virginia, charter schools are expected to provide “new, innovative, and more flexible” education for students, according to the bill that established them

Where are charters opening in West Virginia? 

Four charter schools will open for the coming school year – two brick-and-mortar and two virtual.

The West Virginia Academy, based in Morgantown, is projected to have over 400 students. The school’s president, John Treu, said the charter’s primary recruitment area extends into Preston County.

The other in-person charter school, Eastern Preparatory Academy in Jefferson County, expects to enroll over 200 students.

A third in-person charter was planned for Nitro, on the Kanawha-Putnam county border, but the school hasn’t been able to find a physical location. It could open in fall of 2023 if approved by the state’s charter school board.

There will also be two virtual options open to students from any county, assuming those students have internet access in the first place.

How are charter schools funded in West Virginia?

In West Virginia, charter schools will depend primarily on funding from county school districts, and most of that money comes from the state.

Every year, public schools receive state funding based on how many students they have; when a student transfers to a charter school, most of the money for that student does too. A bill state lawmakers passed in 2021, which addressed the creation and oversight of charter schools, says 90% of the per-student funding is required to follow a student to a charter school.

For example, over 350 students are expected to leave public schools in Monongalia County in the fall, which will mean a loss of more than $2 million for the school district.

Charter schools can also receive funding from federal grants and donations, which critics argue could leave these schools open to the special interests of private donors.

Who can teach at a charter school?

It’s easier than ever to become a certified teacher in West Virginia: Last year, state lawmakers relaxed teacher certification requirements in an effort to offset a rising lack of teachers. Now, anyone with a bachelor’s degree can become a certified teacher, if they pass a background check and complete state-mandated testing and training.

Charter schools often have more flexibility when it comes to hiring teachers, according to James Paul, executive director of West Virginia’s state charter school approval board. But because of the recent state changes, teaching requirements for charter schools in West Virginia are nearly the same as those for public schools. 

In order to teach at a charter school, a person would only need to meet the school’s individual requirements for employment — including a background check — or be a certified teacher in West Virginia. 

As a part of its state contract, a charter school is required to develop a staffing plan, including qualifications for hiring teachers. The state charter school board must then approve the plan.

Who can apply and open a charter school in the state?

Almost anyone can submit an application to start a charter school in West Virginia. 

This could be a parent, teacher, school administrator or even an institution of higher education. They would only need to receive tax-exempt status and have a contract authorized by the state’s charter school board, according to the state code.

Beginning on July 1, 2023, the state can authorize up to 10 additional charter schools every three years.

What are the arguments for and against this option for students?

Charter schools are intended to provide schooling options that may not be found in a traditional public school setting. In West Virginia, these schools come at a time when families are increasingly turning away from the public school system.

For advocates like James Paul, charter schools offer alternatives to parents who are frustrated with traditional public schools.

“Charter schools provide additional educational options to families and increase the likelihood that every West Virginia student will be matched to a school that is best suited to his or her individual needs,” he said.

Paul and other charter school proponents have seized on “cultural division” in public classrooms, like debates over how to treat issues of race and gender identity, as a way to advance “school choice” options.

Paul also pointed out that charters would address equity issues in West Virginia by offering students options outside their school district. Others argue the schools would create further disparities.

Though charters can’t charge tuition, attending one may be challenging for students who don’t have transportation or internet access (for virtual charter schools).

Some critics worry that charter schools will exacerbate existing budgetary problems facing county school districts.

With the emergence of charter schools and other privatized educational options, researchers like Erin McHenry-Sorber, a West Virginia University professor, argue county schools will still face similar operating costs, but with less funding.

“[County schools] still need the same number of teachers. They still need the same number of facilities and other staff,” McHenry-Sorber said. “And so really, they’re just doing the same amount of work or require the same amount of resources they did before. But they have fewer resources to work with.”

Other critics argue that the concept of a charter school system is mostly unproven in rural states like West Virginia.

“As with everything, there are cases of successful charter schools. There are cases of less-than-successful public schools out there in the world,” WVU professor Matthew Campbell said. “There might be big differences in the context of those ‘success stories’ that need to be examined and critiqued to understand what that means for West Virginia.”

How could charter schools affect educational outcomes for West Virginia kids? 

For individual students, charters will have to show their students can meet student performance standards outlined by the state — the same standardized tests public school students must complete. If they can’t, the charter school could be forced to close.

On a county level, some school districts can expect to keep facing  budgetary challenges as their funding is used to support charter schools in their districts. This is part of a larger shift towards alternative and privatized educational options.

Campbell said charter schools are one of many efforts to dismantle public education in the state.

“It’s a broad category of moves and initiatives and policy changes that all seem consistent with a devaluing of public education with seemingly the intent to degrade it,” he said.

Charter schools, built on the principle of school choice, will provide some West Virginia families with individualized education options, while indirectly excluding others.

Trenton Straight is a Mountain State Spotlight intern during Summer 2022. A native of St. Albans, WV, he is currently a student at West Virginia University.