Senate Education Committee tables charter school legislation
Published: October 10, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - Discussion on a bill to establish charter schools in the territory continued Wednesday in the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee, but the legislation was ultimately was held in committee.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly, was first heard in July and was heard again Tuesday on St. Croix.
Charter schools are independent public schools that are allowed the freedom to be more innovative, while also being held accountable for improved student achievement, according to information from The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Under the bill, charter schools would be public schools operating independently of the V.I. Education Department.
The 25-page bill, which would become the Virgin Islands Charter School Act, establishes the process of filing petitions for charters, outlines the duties and powers of charter schools, establishes the V.I. Charter Schools Council and appropriates $250,000 to commence council operations. It also sets up the framework for how charter schools would operate in the territory,
At Wednesday's hearing, Education officials got to weigh in on the issue of charter schools and put some of their concerns on the record.
Acting Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory said charter schools have taken on the persona of private schools financed with public funds. She said in her research, charter schools do not perform better in math and reading than their public school counterparts, and tend to enroll fewer special needs, low income and English as a second language students.
According to the bill, charter schools are allowed to prioritize returning students, refuse students expelled from other schools, set student body limits and screen students through an application process.
"These restrictive measures ensure that only those desired will be accepted and served in charter schools," Frett-Gregory said.
Frett-Gregory noted that in the 23 years charter schools have operated in the United States, many have been shut down for financial mismanagement and poor performance.
Sen. Judi Buckley, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said it is a good thing that the territory has so many examples to see what works and what does not.
"I don't think any of us should shy away from this because it has failed in some jurisdictions," Buckley said.
Converting public schools
One aspect of the proposed legislation is that a public school could be converted into a charter school if the parents, teachers and staff want it to be. The bill says 51 percent of parents and school staff would have to vote to turn it into a charter school, then the petition would have to be accepted by a special council set up to govern charter schools in the territory.
Frett-Gregory said the language of the bill is vague about what would happen to the students enrolled at the public school once it was converted.
Rivera-O'Reilly said that the language could be clarified, but her intent is that the students would stay at the school after it was converted unless they chose to leave.
Frett-Gregory also raised concerns about funding.
Under the legislation, the charter school can incur debt in anticipation of getting money from the General Fund, federal funds or private funds. The commissioner wondered whether the department would have to take money from its budget to cover the charter school's debt if the government could not fund the school to the level of indebtedness.
She also had concerns about a provision that allows public school teachers to take up to three years of leave to teach in a charter school.
Frett-Gregory said who pays the employee and what happens to the position left vacant must be further addressed in the bill.
"Our present situation requires us to hire substitutes; this will only exacerbate the already vexing situation," she said.
According to the bill, if a charter school fails, Education will manage the school until alternative arrangements can be made.
"Will new funds be allotted to the department to manage the failed charter that has already expended its allotment?" she asked.
Public school issues
She also raised questions about labor and the rules of the school if the department had to take over a charter school.
"It is unclear how this transitional management period would work," Frett-Gregory said.
Buckley asked the commissioner what the biggest impediments are to the current education system.
Deteriorating buildings, restrictive collective bargaining agreements, lack of parental involvement and the criminal element are just some of the major issues affecting the department and prohibiting growth and development of the public school system.
St. Croix School Superintendent Gary Molloy said he wishes public schools could have the freedom and autonomy that a charter school would, but that the public school system is hampered by legislative mandates, systemic problems and restrictive union contracts.
"Charter schools are not the panacea for the challenges that plague our public school system. We recognize that the public school system must do a better job at meeting the needs of our students. We suggest the focus should be on implementing a system of policies, strategies and accountability to facilitate the improvement of the public school system," Frett-Gregory said.
Sen. Sammuel Sanes said he is tired of hearing that the department just needs more time, or must be given a chance to fix its problems. He said the department has had decades to meet the needs of its students and still continues to fail them.
Rivera-O'Reilly said she understands that change is difficult, especially change that shakes the foundations of government institutions.
"It's all about choice, what are we afraid of?" she said. "That it wouldn't work? So, if it doesn't work, you try something else. You can't just keep the status quo and expect different results. We can't just not do anything."
The charter schools would operate outside the Education Department and would be monitored and overseen by the nine-member V.I. Charter Schools Council established in the bill. The council would also grant charters.
Under the bill and a proposed amendment, the charter schools would be funded on a per-pupil basis, and could expend those funds without involvement of the Education Department.
According to the bill, no more than eight charter schools could operate in the territory and the charter schools must not charge an application fee or tuition to attend.
- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email email@example.com.