The Senate held in committee Wednesday a bill to allow charter schools in the territory, with Education Department, Board of Education, university officials and teachers unions all raising concerns about the impact on public school resources and whether data really shows them to improve educational outcomes.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly would let parents and staff at a public school petition to convert it to a charter school, or anyone with a V.I. business license to petition to start a school from scratch.
If any charter schools were created, they would have independent boards of trustees, independent control of curriculum, methods and hiring, and public funding based on student population. A nine-member volunteer board would review applications. Schools would have to admit students by lottery and could not restrict admissions based on past performance or other factors. The schools would remain public and would not charge tuition.
Supporters of the bill, including the St. Croix Foundation and National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, presented data to the Committee on Education and Workforce Development on Tuesday, suggesting charter schools can bring improved educational results without breaking the bank. St. Croix union officials opposed it and V.I. Board of Education Executive Director Carol Henneman testified the board could only support it if there were some amendments. (See related links below.)
Testifying Wednesday, University of the Virgin Islands President David Hall said more than 4,000 charter schools were now open in the states, and the flexibility of charter schools could present some benefits but, by the same token, could also present serious risks affecting students. In particular, because of that very independence and because people may be reluctant to pull the plug on a new school after putting so much work into it, "a nonperforming school may remain open longer than it otherwise would," Hall said.
Acting Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory raised a number of serious reservations about charter schools in general and about the specific legislation before the Senate. She said the department opposes the bill.
"I want to make it abundantly clear that we are not necessarily opposed to any charter school system," she said, but added that Education needs resources, has deteriorating school buildings and staffing shortages, and that charter schools do not really address any of those broader issues.
Frett-Gregory also cited several studies suggesting there is no clear advantage to charter schools, and that some jurisdictions are moving away from charter schools after experimenting with them and getting poor results.
The bill is "extensively similar to Guam’s law," and difficulties have arisen there so that "Guam has decided not to implement it due to cost and fairness concerns," she said.
Another major concern of hers was what happens with a failed charter – how is it wound down and how are the students re-incorporated into the school system?
"We suggest the focus should be on improvement of all schools," Frett-Gregory said.
She said that, with several years of budget cuts, "adding charter schools to the mix only divides the pie into more pieces and does not guarantee better outcomes."
St. Thomas Federation of Teachers President Vernelle Delagarde repeated concerns raised Tuesday by the St. Croix Federation of Teachers, that charter schools are a backdoor way to privatize schools and bust unions.
Sen. Janette Millin Young asked Lisa Grover, senior director of state advocacy for the National Alliance for Charter Schools, what the cost of converting a regular public school to a charter school would be.
"In the case of converting to a charter school, I don’t see how any costs are incurred," Grover said.
Young posed the same question to Frett-Gregory.
"I can’t say definitely yes or no, because we look different" than stateside jurisdictions, Frett-Gregory said.
She said per student funding figures do not match up with stateside jurisdictions, partly because local funding and federal funding are budgeted differently, and partly because the territory is required by local law to provide busing and completely free meals to nonpublic schools, as well as public schools, increasing per-pupil costs to the public school system.
With all that, the per-pupil cost comes to about $11,139, but "that number is not accurate," as some of those costs go to nonpublic school pupils, she said. So funding charter schools with per pupil dollar amounts could mean disproportionately high per-student funding, taking money out of the public schools.
O’Reilly defended the bill, saying that it can be amended to address these concerns and that it holds more promise of improvement than any other proposal. "If not this, what?" she asked of her fellow senators.
Young moved to hold the bill in committee pending further amendment. Voting to hold the bill were O’Reilly, Young, Sens. Judi Buckley, Donald Cole, Myron Jackson, Tregenza Roach and Sammuel Sanes. No one was absent. No one voted nay.
This is the second time the committee has considered and held this bill. The committee voted to hold it for further amendment in July. (See related links below)