A possible solution to stalemate on education reform

Governor Jim Justice, Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw have met to try to find common ground on the most contentious issues heading into the special legislative session on education in a few weeks.

Lawmakers and the Governor could not agree during the regular session on a comprehensive education reform bill, so the special session will be a reboot.  The most disputed issues—charter schools and education savings accounts—have not been resolved, but there just might be a way forward.

House and Senate Republican leaders are committed to legislation that would allow for at least a few charter schools. Opponents, including the teacher unions, argue charters take money away from public schools and don’t produce any better results.

That’s not quite right. The charters would still be public schools, and presumably operate under the auspice of the local board of education.  However, they would be liberated from overly burdensome regulations and have the flexibility to be more innovative.  They also give parents another option for their children’s education.

The quality of charter schools varies.  For example, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes reports that 34 percent of Ohio charter schools have better results in reading than their public school counterparts, while 29 percent of charters do better in math.  However, 14 percent of charters underperform in reading and 32 percent do worse than public schools in math.

Charters do a little better in Idaho.  The Center study shows 40 percent of charter schools outpace public schools in reading and math.  Seventeen percent are worse in reading, while 20 percent underperform in math.

The Governor and legislative leaders are also considering adding up to two more Mountaineer Challenge Academies.  The state has only one now in Preston County, which is operated by the National Guard, and it has been very successful at improving outcomes for academically challenged teens.

The quasi-military environment during 22-weeks of residential training gives teens a second chance at completing their basic education while providing some direction for the future. West Virginia could locate another Challenge Academy in southern West Virginia and a third in the eastern panhandle.

And finally, there is the thorny issue of education savings accounts. ESAs allow parents to move their children from public school into a private or home school. Public funds follow the student into a savings account the parents can draw from for tuition, fees, online learning and other education expenses.

Critics argue ESAs drain money from public education, and they have a point.  There is, however, a reasonable and workable alternative—education scholarships.  At least 18 states have some version of tax credit funded school scholarships. Here’s how they work:

The state establishes a tax credit for individual and business contributions to private and public schools.  The credit would have a cap, but it’s attractive because the contributor’s tax liability is reduced by the donated amount.

The private school then uses the money to award scholarships to students, typically from low-income families that cannot afford the tuition.  Public schools can use the money for improvements or expenses not covered by state and federal allocations. Lawmakers could also include a tax credit for qualified expenses for homeschoolers.

The result is more school choice, more resources for education and a tax benefit for individuals and businesses that want to invest in their schools.  The obvious downside is that the tax credit cuts into the amount of money collected by the state that could be spent on other services.

Lawmakers will soon be back in Charleston to take another crack at comprehensive education reform.  It won’t be easy, but there is a way forward, even on the most controversial issues.


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