West Virginia charter school advocates asked for help funding start-up costs during the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability meeting on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023 in Charleston. W.Va. (Will Price | West Virginia Legislative Photography)
West Virginia charter school advocates are asking lawmakers for help funding start-up costs, including securing buildings for classrooms.
The requests, laid out before lawmakers on Sunday, come on the heels of several Republican-backed bills this year that supported charter schools and expanded opportunities for their students. One sweeping piece of legislation bolstered funding for the schools and allowed their leaders to access public school safety funds.
“I am grateful for the steps the Legislature and the governor have taken in the last year to improve funding, but I think there are more steps that can be done,” said James Paul, executive director of the West Virginia Professional Charter School Board.
There has been an increase in students opting into the state’s five charter schools, which now includes two statewide virtual schools.
Preliminary enrollment numbers showed about 2,200 students are enrolled in those programs, a more than 75% increase since charter schools first launched in the state in 2022.
Two more charter schools are expected to open next year.
Over the last few years, the state lawmakers have swiftly expanded school choice, and charter schools have been a key component of that movement. They passed bills that gave the state the ability to authorize charter schools, while also creating one of the nation’s broadest education savings account programs, known as the Hope Scholarship. Nationally, there has been a conservative push for school choice, particularly in the wake of COVID-19 school disruptions and curriculum controversies.
Students who attend the state’s public charter schools or use the Hope Scholarship divert funds from the traditional public school system. Opponents of West Virginia’s education savings account program, which survived legal challenges, argued that public schools were already struggling financially in the poor state.
Funding for charter schools is still needed, according to Paul, who said schools are struggling to get off the ground since a portion of the state-backed funding doesn’t kick in until after the schools have started the school year with students. In West Virginia, the schools are considered public schools.
“A lot of challenges come in that start-up period,” he told lawmakers, adding that it requires charter school founders to rely on private fundraising, philanthropic gifts, loans or other resources to make it work financially.
John Treu, a West Virginia University professor who founded West Virginia Academy, said it cost around $1 million to get the school off the ground for 400 students.
“Realistically, you’re looking at seven figures for a school our size,” he said.
Legislature asked to consider funding options for charter schools
Paul, who spoke to the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability, laid out several options for how lawmakers could help fund charter schools. The schools aim to improve students’ academic performance as students have struggled to make up for pandemic-incurred learning loss.
State charter schools were recently awarded a $12.3 million federal grant that will be used to grow the school system over the next five years. The bulk of that money will go directly to schools, Paul said.
But, he stressed that start-up funding, particularly for those who want to operate in school buildings, is still a hurdle.
He’d like to see the lawmakers put money into the newly-created Charter Schools Stimulus Fund, which was supposed to address start-up costs. The bill didn’t come with built-in funding.
“There’s still no specific funding for facilities, and there’s still no access to local dollars,” Paul said.
He also suggested creating a program — like one enacted in Ohio — that provides per-pupil funding specifically for facility costs, and he told lawmakers about a lease reimbursement program for charter schools renting space.
“Many other states have recognized this is an area where charter schools need help,” Paul said.
Nationally, finances affect charter schools’ ability to remain open.
Researchers with the Network for Public Education found that, “Within the first three years, 18% of charters had closed, with many of those closures occurring within the first year. By the end of five years, 25% of charters had closed. By the ten year mark, 40% of charters had closed,” Forbes reported.
According to The Parkersburg News and Sentinel, one charter school — Eastern Panhandle Preparatory Academy in Kearneysville — is already operating with a nearly $2 million deficit since opening two years ago.
Paul told lawmakers that he wasn’t concerned about charter schools’ long-term financial viability in West Virginia.
“We’re confident about their success in the long term because once they become stable and their enrollment is going to grow, they’re going to work out,” he said.
School choice likely on lawmakers’ minds in 2024
School choice will likely again be part of lawmakers’ focus when they gather in Charleston in January for the 60-day regular session.
Along with Paul’s suggestions for lawmakers, the West Virginia Professional Charter School Board would likely need lawmakers’ approval for their idea to use Hope Scholarship funds for certain educational services. The board is considering accessing the education savings account program in an effort to offset costs.
The Hope Scholarship gives West Virginia students roughly $4,400 per student in taxpayer money that would otherwise go to public schools.
State Treasure Riley Moore has pushed expanding eligibility for the Hope Scholarship by getting rid of its application deadlines. The proposed change would allow the program to accept students year-round with few other eligibility guidelines.
“… I think that’s something a lot of families and students would love to see,” Moore told MetroNews.
The change would require Legislative action, Moore said, to increase program funding so the program could accept students year round.
School choice and education issues are also at the forefront of the 2024 governor’s race. Four Republican male candidates, including front-runners Patrick Morrisey and Moore Capito, have affirmed their support of school choice.
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