CHARLESTON – There is no greater responsibility of state government than to provide a thorough education for our children. American leaders from every generation have recognized the importance of a world-class, public education.
President John F. Kennedy felt so strongly about this imperative that he wrote:
“Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. Our requirements for world leadership, our hopes for economic growth, and the demands of citizenship itself in an era such as this all require the maximum development of every young American's capacity. The human mind is our fundamental resource.”
In the best tradition of American leadership, West Virginians can take pride in the attention and focus that the Legislature has devoted to improving our public education system. There is no doubt that our system was in desperate need of repair. Test results and student success rates for our children rank near the bottom of states, and we should not accept this performance. Students deserve a superior education that will develop their mind, curiosity, and God-given talent.
Throughout the past two years, the Legislature aggressively moved to increase teacher pay, provide more flexibility at the local level, and give parents more options to best educate their children. The majority of these reforms have been universally embraced. However, the one change that has caused the most angst among the education community has been the provision to enable school choice, which will more create more competition and options for parents through public charter schools.
The opponents of public charter schools have relentlessly demonized and mischaracterized this widely accepted concept that exists in 44 other states. In fact, there are more than 7,000 charter schools in the United States. Many parents, students, and teachers love their charter schools.
They often provide an alternative for children that may not learn or excel in traditional public school settings. Some charter schools focus on STEM curriculum, some place emphasis on the arts, and some are directed toward college prep or vocational education. Some charter schools require uniforms, others have longer school days, and some provide unique services for special needs students. The possibilities are limitless, but through charter schools, parents have a choice when it comes to their child’s education.
The reasons parents choose a public charter school for their children are as individual and unique as the students themselves. Opponents of these schools occasionally point to a charter school that did not perform well or has closed. These, unfortunately, are realities in a system with more than 7,000 charter schools. However, that does not change that West Virginia’s traditional public school system is ranked nearly last in America.
It simply makes sense to try something to improve our performance that, in the majority of cases, works well in other states. Public charter schools are meant to be opportunities to try new methods of instruction from teachers that have the autonomy to design a classroom that fits their students’ needs. The goal is to emulate the best and most successful practices from charter schools and bring innovation to the traditional public school setting.
The Legislature has taken great care to ensure any public charter schools in West Virginia are tuition-free and open to all students. They must be approved by – and report to – a locally elected county Board of Education. They will be led by dynamic principals who have the flexibility to create a school culture that fosters student performance and parent satisfaction. Finally, the limit of three public schools per three-year period will help West Virginia integrate this school choice option into our counties in the best manner possible.
The Student Success Act is the beginning of a revitalization in our public schools. I am confident West Virginia’s public education system can be the best in the nation. Let us begin the journey that will enable our youth to realize their amazing potential. Why would we not do all we can for our children?
Carmichael (R-Jackson) is president of the West Virginia Senate and represents the Fourth District, which includes Jackson and Mason counties and parts of Putnam and Roane counties.