West Virginia is just dipping its toe into charter schools.

The state Board of Education is putting out for public comment proposed rules on how charter schools will operate.

Those rules run 47 pages, single-spaced, which seems like a lot considering one of the supposed advantages of a charter school is that it can be more innovative by operating outside much of the bureaucracy of public ed.

I suppose even innovation, by government standards, can be complicated.

Nevertheless, this is a very modest beginning for charters.  The legislation passed this year allows for the creation of only three charter schools starting July 1, 2020, and then three more every three years.

The teacher unions are furious. They argue, among other things, that the charters will drain money from traditional public schools.  It is true that 90 percent of the per-pupil funding will follow the student to the charter.  However, it is highly likely that any charter will be awarded to an existing school.

Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers West Virginia, said on Talkline Thursday that his organization plans to sue to stop charters.

“We have felt the citizens of West Virginia were shut out, were not listened to,” Albert said, adding that he believes charters are unconstitutional.  He wants a statewide vote on whether to allow charters.

I don’t understand that argument.

First, the state Constitution specifies that “The Legislature shall provide, by general law, for a thorough and efficient system of free schools” and that “the general supervision of schools of the State shall be vested in the West Virginia board of education” as prescribed by law.

That gives the legislature and the state board broad authority to run the schools.

The AFT may be hanging their legal hat on the constitutional provision that prevents the creation of an “independent free school district” without the consent of the school district as expressed by a majority of voters voting on the question.”

However, the legislation says specifically that charters are public schools that are authorized by the county board of education.

Add in that courts are typically reluctant to extend their reach into the authority of the other two co-equal branches of government and you have what amounts to a legal longshot by the union.  Of course, the teachers are influential, and they may be able to find a circuit judge to carry their water, at least temporarily.

There is plenty of research—much by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO)—on the effectiveness of charter schools and the results are mixed.  It’s a great bell curve; some students do better in a charter, a few do worse and most are about the same.

According to the most recent studies by CREDO, New Mexico and Pennsylvania charter school students perform at about the same level as those in traditional public schools. However, Maryland charter students “experience strong learning gains” in both reading and math.

The recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress test results show West Virginia public school students performing below the national average in fourth and eighth grade reading and math.  They also show students losing ground in three of the four categories.

The annual state Department of Education Balanced Scorecard also shows poor student performances in math, English language arts and even school attendance.

This extremely cautious entry into charters empowers a few county school boards, professional educators and concerned parents to try something different.  That’s the kind of innovation and motivation we should embrace, not fight tooth and nail.

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