By Nelson Smith
The words “flexible” or “flexibility” appear 30 times in the 32-page report “West Virginia’s Voice” which summarizes the state’s recent education-policy forums. School leaders and district administrators feel hamstrung by a multitude of restrictions on how they spend the money Charleston sends. A principal may be getting funding she can only spend on one category of support personnel when student needs call for another. A superintendent has to justify why he needs to move funds from one state-mandated silo to another.
So, while voicing a hearty “amen” to increased teacher compensation and other proposals, I find it ironic that a whopping 88 percent of participants in the forum process reported opposing public charter schools — where flexibility is a core value. Yes, charters are subject to some of the same constraints as other public schools (USDA money does have to be spent on meals, for example) but most day-to-day decisions about how to allocate resources can be made closest to kids, at the school site. So charters can make fast, nimble changes when priorities change or emergencies arise.
For educators hungry for flexibility, what might that mean?
- Ordering well-reviewed books from Amazon to supplement an American history course.
- Installing a self-directed curriculum/assessment platform without extensive explanations and levels of permission
- Changing a staffing pattern when interim assessments suggest a better match between teachers and students
- Extending the school day to provide more learning time
Now, about that big “no” vote: As one veteran of many charter-law battles said upon hearing of the results, “People in a state without a charter law don’t really know what they are voting for.” In fact, the report itself says in its school-choice section that “Misconceptions, from participants internal and external to the public school system, on some of the proposals created a sense of confusion.”
The report makes some recommendations worth considering in case a charter law is adopted. But even here, misunderstandings lurk. “Use of a random lottery for oversubscribed schools” is a key element of the charter mode — and a requirement for federal funding. As public schools, charters are already required by federal law to “provide services to students with disabilities, English language learners, and other high-needs students.” What’s different is that charters across the country are using their flexibility to find innovative ways of meeting these obligations.
One note of caution: There’s been talk of a “pilot” that might limit West Virginia’s charter program to two or three schools. As a close observer of the federal Charter Schools Program over the years, I know that such a limitation will put our state at a clear disadvantage in obtaining grants from this highly competitive program. In recent years the majority of states funded by the CSP have had no caps on charter growth, and competing states have gotten the message.
Charter schools give educators the freedom they need to be creative, respond quickly to student needs, and try something new when circumstances change. Once public charter schools are allowed in law – a step taken by 44 other states – I’ve no doubt that West Virginia teachers, principals, and community leaders will show the same gumption as those who’ve started more than 3000 charter schools in 44 other states, including hundreds in rural areas.
All they need is a chance.
Nelson Smith, a resident of Shepherdstown, was the first CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Executive Director of the DC Charter School Board, and former advisor to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.