A school bus waiting in the parking lot of the West Virginia Academy, a charter school planning to open later this month. Photo by Trenton Straight

After years of debate, West Virginia’s first charter schools are poised to open this month for the upcoming school year. And as more than a thousand students are expected to leave their public schools in favor of these options around the state, parents like Stephanie Lorenze are worried. 

Lorenze’s two daughters attend an elementary school in Monongalia County, where she says the teachers have been remarkably supportive. But as the number of public school students — and funding — shrinks, partly due to new options like charters, Lorenze has a lot of uncertainty about the education her kids will get in traditional public schools.

Stephanie Lorenze and her family. Submitted photo.

“When it comes to their high school experience, I’m really anxious to see how things shift,” Lorenze said. “I think if we see an impact, we’ll really start to feel it in five years, and I don’t know what that will look like. We can only make guesses because, of course, this is something completely new to West Virginia.”

Fewer students mean less money for school districts, and as those students leave the traditional public school system in favor of one of the four new charter options, West Virginia’s county schools expect to lose millions of dollars in funding this upcoming school year.

The opening of charter schools and the prospect of school voucher programs like the Hope Scholarship — currently on hold after a circuit judge ruled it unconstitutional — come after West Virginia public schools have already experienced decades of declining student enrollment. Charter schools and school voucher programs would only exacerbate this decline, drastically changing the landscape of public education in the state.

Of course, for some West Virginia families, options like charters are a welcome change. 

Ruth Switzer, who will attend West Virginia Academy during the upcoming school year. Submitted photo.

Morgantown parent Katie Switzer’s oldest daughter has an uncommon speech disorder, which Switzer says the public schools aren’t equipped to provide special help for. In August, her daughter will attend the West Virginia Academy, where she’ll work with a reading specialist. 

“She now gets access to that program and also a chance to socialize without it being overwhelming,” Switzer said.

But at a time when West Virginia’s public schools are already chronically underfunded, school administrators are looking at a $6 million funding cut statewide as money follows students to charters. If the Hope Scholarship is allowed to proceed, that could take another estimated $13 million bite out of county school budgets. And ultimately, West Virginia kids will be the ones bearing the brunt of budgets that are stretched even thinner. 

Loss of funding 

Charter schools, which are set to open in the next several weeks, are publicly funded schools that work under an agreement with the state charter school approval board but operate independently from county school districts. They are intended to provide more diverse options and programs that may not be available in county schools.

“Rather than restricting students to the schools offered in their ZIP code, charters promote equity by expanding educational opportunity,” said James Paul, executive director of the state’s charter school approval board.

When a student transfers to a charter school or uses a school voucher, the money that would go to a public school follows that student. But the operating costs of the county’s public schools — costs like building maintenance and teacher salaries — remain about the same. So the state’s public schools, which will still serve most West Virginia kids, will have about the same expenses and less money to cover them. 

“In a school system this size, it’s difficult to describe where you make up $2 million.”

monongalia county superintendent eddie campbell

In Monongalia County, administrators expect to lose more than $2 million — the largest amount of any county — due to kids leaving the district for charter schools. 

The budget change “is way more than what we would see normally,” Monongalia County Superintendent Eddie Campbell said.

The state estimates 354 kids will exit Campbell’s school district for a charter — either a virtual option, or the state’s largest in-person charter school, which is set to open in Monongalia County this month. Aside from how much money his district would lose, Campbell said the state Department of Education gave no details about the students who would be leaving the county’s school system.

“In a school system this size, it’s difficult to describe where you make up $2 million,” he said. “It’s not an area where you’re going to be able to make adjustments with personnel because you can’t specifically identify where you’re losing students.”

While their student population and budget are much smaller, Marshall County is anticipating a loss of 8% of their state funding, the largest percentage in the state. 

Shelby Haines, schools superintendent for the county, said this cut comes as schools already face rising costs for items like school supplies and gasoline for school buses.

“We also want to make sure that our students have everything that they need,” Haines said. “We don’t want to cut anything from our kids directly.”

Between charter schools and school vouchers, Haines expects a considerable number of students to exit public schools later this month. She and other county superintendents are practically flying blind into the school year.

“We won’t know where those kids are coming from until we open our doors in August,” Campbell said. “So again, that does become a difficult juggling act to try to work with, and it’ll be an ongoing process.”

This loss in funding could worsen as final enrollment numbers for charter schools are determined in October by the state Department of Education. 

A plummeting student population

Even before students could leave West Virginia public schools in favor of charters, the state’s public education system has long struggled with dropping student populations. Over the past two decades, the number of public school students has decreased by 10%, a faster decline than the state’s overall population during the same period.

During the pandemic alone, the state’s public schools lost thousands of students, matching a nationwide trend. The disruption of in-person learning was a chief cause, according to experts.

And while those trends were seen nationwide, state researchers argue that West Virginia’s decline has been exacerbated by the actions of local lawmakers.

“The more a state invests in privatization schemes, the more challenging it becomes to operate the public school system,” said Erin McHenry-Sorber, a public education researcher at West Virginia University. “And then those public schools become less desirable because they have fewer and fewer resources.”

The West Virginia Academy, an in-person charter school, will open in Morgantown later this month. Photo by Trenton Straight

John Treu, president of the West Virginia Academy, said his school offers students and their families options that may not be found in a traditional public school setting.

“Because we’re the first charter school or pilot charter school, we made it a big priority to have areas that serve all types of demographics,” he said.

Treu and other proponents of charter schools argue that they’re actively addressing equity issues in the state’s public education system, by offering options to any student, regardless of where they may live.

Unlike most charter schools, West Virginia Academy will offer transportation to students that live within a certain distance of the Morgantown school, extending to areas of Preston County. Treu said he anticipates the school will eventually enroll more than 1,000 students.

But a number of students still can’t attend charter schools due to a lack of transportation or, in the case of virtual charters, broadband access.

What will the future hold?

Public education in West Virginia has long suffered from a declining student population and a series of budget cuts, and there isn’t a clear solution to the resulting problems. But county superintendents and experts say state lawmakers could do more.

McHenry-Sorber, who has spent years researching rural schools, said the state could change the way funding is distributed to county school systems.

“States like West Virginia are going to have to come up with revised formulas for supporting their student populations,” McHenry-Sorber said. “If funding is tied only to student population and numbers, then larger urban districts tend to receive a lot more money than our rural districts, which might have a really high percentage of students in need.”

“This becomes cyclical. If a state invests less and less in its public education system…those public systems lose money and lose resources… And then these privatization schemes look more attractive to families when they’re available.” 

erin mchenry-sorber, wvu public education researcher

A 2018 study from the Education Commission of the States addressed a number of inefficiencies in West Virginia’s system for public school funding.

Unlike most states, West Virginia only measures student enrollment once a year, which determines how much money a school system receives. As a result, counties aren’t compensated for students who transfer in or out of a school system after enrollment is counted. Those students tend to be from lower-income families.

School districts could bring in more funding by passing excess levies, which use county tax dollars. But McHenry-Sorber said this can be a challenge for smaller counties — which are the ones that could benefit the most. Passing a levy would also require an immense amount of public support.

Even the state’s wealthier school districts — like Monongalia and Kanawha counties — may increasingly face budgetary challenges as more public education alternatives are made available. Campbell, the Monongalia superintendent, said school districts in general will need more support from the state.

“One of the biggest issues that we have, I think, in the state of West Virginia is that we’ve got to find ways to provide the necessary resources for our public school systems,” he said. “And it may not always be the public school system’s fault. The resources just weren’t available to do the things that people have and expect for their kids.”

But ultimately, McHenry-Sorber said, as resources keep getting cut, alternatives like charter, private and home schools look more and more attractive. That diverts more resources from struggling public school systems.

“This becomes cyclical,” McHenry-Sorber said. “If a state invests less and less in its public education system — and then more and more in alternative systems — those public systems lose money and lose resources, cut programs and are unable to maintain their facilities. And then these privatization schemes look more attractive to families when they’re available.” 

As for the future, experts say these emerging school options create a lot of uncertainty for the future of public education in West Virginia, which has been weakening for decades. And families who have a vested interest in their school systems aren’t sure what to expect.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the agency that works with charter schools. It is the state charter school approval board.

Trenton Straight

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.