Senators to take up debate over allowing charter schools in territory


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Legislation that would create the framework for establishing public charter schools in the territory will be discussed during Senate committee hearings this week, while the sponsor of the bill is also having forums for residents interested in learning more about the charter-school concept.

"We are hoping to improve the education system, to give parents and teachers and students options - and to narrow the achievement gap," said Sen. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly, the sponsor of the bill. "We're hoping to introduce here what has been introduced in other systems."

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.

The first public forum is scheduled for 6 p.m. today at the University of the Virgin Islands Great Hall on St. Croix. A second public forum is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Victor's New Hideout on St. Thomas.

The St. Croix presentation will be hosted by Liz Llanos, with Rivera-O'Reilly; Lisa Grover, the senior director of state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; and Maury Wills, who is headmaster at the Dekalb Academy of Technology and Environment, a charter school in Georgia.

The St. Thomas presentation will be hosted by Kirk Callwood Sr., a board member for Dekalb Academy, with Rivera-O'Reilly and Grover.

"We want to continue to educate people, to continue to take the fear away from change - and instead replace fear with the possibility of success," Rivera-O'Reilly said.

The forums will feature presentations about charter schools followed by question-answer sessions.

Rivera-O'Reilly said she is interested in hearing what people think - their questions as well as their concerns.

"We want to hear from parents. We went them to come out and learn what charter schools are about," she said.

The legislation states that it is intended to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, students and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the V.I. Education Department to improve learning, expand learning experiences, encourage innovative teaching methods, create new professional opportunities for teachers, provide parents and students with more choices and to hold charter schools accountable.

"We cannot expect to grow our economy and reduce crime when more than half of V.I. public school students score below proficiency in reading and math," Rivera-O'Reilly said in a letter to other senators about the legislation. "Many states have addressed this issue through various legislative initiatives, including charter schools. In order to en-engage our youth and to help V.I. students catch up with their peers in other jurisdictions, we must be willing to consider making radical improvements to our education system."

The 25-page bill, if enacted, would become the Virgin Islands Charter School Act of 2013.

It 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 also sets out the means for the council to put a charter on probation or to revoke it entirely - one of the safeguards in the legislation, according to Rivera-O'Reilly. Other safeguards in the bill include a prohibition on for-profit companies operating charter schools, she said.

Under the bill, the budget for each charter school would be submitted to the Legislature, as part of the Education Department budget.

The amount approved for each charter school - based on the number of students attending the school - would be available for expenditure by the school's trustees without any further approval from the Education Department.

The bill also sets out a way for teachers who work for the Education Department to give teaching in charter schools a try for up to three years on a leave of absence from Education.

Rivera-O'Reilly said her office has been working on the bill since 2009. It incorporates some wording from model legislation that has been developed, as well as some concepts that were borrowed from Guam, which has already approved charter school legislation, Rivera-O'Reilly said.

The bill is scheduled to be discussed during Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development hearings starting at 10 a.m. Tuesday on St. Croix at the Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room and at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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