Senate Education Committee tackles charter school legislation
Published: October 9, 2013
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ST. CROIX - The Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee is scheduled to take a second day of testimony today in connection with a bill that seeks to bring about education reform by establishing the framework for charter schools in the territory.
For the first day of testimony on Tuesday, those who spoke included officials from the Dekalb Academy of Technology and Environment, a charter school in Georgia; an official from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; a representative from the St. Croix Foundation; and the president of the St. Croix Federation of Teachers.
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.
Sen. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly, who sponsored the legislation, said she realizes change is difficult but pointed out that 50 percent of public school students in the territory are performing below proficiency levels in reading and math.
"Our students are swimming in very deep, treacherous waters without a lifejacket," she said.
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,
Under the legislation, existing public schools, as well as new schools, could become charter schools.
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.
Each school granted a charter would also have its own board. The bill precludes for-profit companies from operating charter schools and also sets out the process for revoking a charter.
Under the bill and a proposed amendment, the charter schools would be funded on a per-pupil basis, and could expend those funds without any involvement from the Education Department.
Deanna James, chief operations officer of the St. Croix Foundation, said that the foundation believes "charters can serve as one means of infusing rapid innovation into a system that has historically been slow to adapt and to innovate. And they will enable us to institute immediate reforms while we continue to discuss, develop, and lay the groundwork for other, more long-term plans."
She said the foundation does not support charter schools in and of themselves, but supports "exceptional schools." Great charter schools are exceptional schools, she said.
The foundation's support is also contingent on inclusion of amendments it recommends "which we feel strongly will stack the cards in favor of the authorization of high performing public charter schools that have a demonstrated and proven track record of success," she said.
Rosa Soto-Thomas, president of the St. Croix Federation of Teachers - AFT Local 1826 - was critical of charter schools and the bill.
She contended that the consensus of research is that charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools and that administrative costs are higher.
"While this bill forbids direct for-profit management, we know that for-profit companies are starting to reincorporate or create non-profit subsidiaries in order to get around such laws," she said.
Soto-Thomas said that the territory needs to make an effort to fix the public school system it has.
She also described the legislation as "union-busting." The bill sets up a means for Education Department teachers to try charter school teaching through a leave of absence. Teachers at the charter schools would not be part of the existing collective bargaining unit.
Lisa Grover, senior director at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, gave a presentation on a 2013 Center for Research on Education Outcomes study that indicated that 29 percent of charter schools outperformed their traditional public school counterparts in math, while 25 percent of charter schools outperformed their traditional public school counterparts in reading.
Maury Wills, headmaster at Dekalb Academy, and Edward Wilson, the principal of the Dekalb County middle school, described the successes and student emphasis at their charter school. A short video was shown.
The hearing moves to Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas today, with other speakers, including Education Department officials, invited to testify.
- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email email@example.com.