The West Virginia House of Delegates recently shot down Senate Bill 451, abruptly killing a promising chance for education reform throughout the state. The bill, which would have allowed for creation of public charter schools throughout the state as well as an increase in open enrollment policies, would have created more educational options for all of West Virginia’s children. However, the teachers unions and their allies rallied against the bill, arguing that charter schools would take money away from public schools. This is, of course, nonsense, since charter schools are public schools. Nonetheless, West Virginia teachers walked out of their classrooms last week in protest of the bill, striking for the second time in the last 18 months.
The state’s House of Delegates missed a tremendous opportunity to ensure that all children in West Virginia have the best chance for academic success. Many of the jobs in well-paying industries that rural communities used to rely on, like manufacturing and energy, are no longer available or have adapted to the digital age so that today’s workers need higher-level skills, such as coding, equipment maintenance, or systems knowledge, to enter to the workforce. As a result, there’s an increasing need for the rural workforce to develop STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills for STEM and non-STEM fields such as computer science and coding. Rural areas across the nation have been experiencing significant “brain drain” as young people leave their communities for better academic or economic opportunities elsewhere.
And, in a state where over 50 percent of the population lives in rural areas, the legislature can’t afford to miss opportunities to improve education.
Twenty-first century school systems built upon the pillars of autonomy, accountability, diversity of school design, and parental choice have resulted in dramatic and positive educational change in urban areas such as New Orleans and Denver. Essentially, these systems treat all of their public schools like charter schools. Rural communities can likewise benefit from the creation of public charter schools.
Many rural charters partner with local industry, higher education institutions, and the community to provide students with the skills needed to succeed in the local economy. Many rural charter schools such as North Idaho STEM charter academy in Rathdrum, Idaho offer dual-enrollment courses, which allow for students to earn an associate’s degree while in high school. These students not only save money by earning college credit during high school, but they also improve their skill set by taking career applicable courses. The Academy of Seminole, a public charter school in Seminole, Oklahoma, was founded by the leader of a local aerospace manufacturing company because his company had encountered difficulty in finding skilled local workers to fill their positions. The school has a partnership with the company, and it focuses on career and workforce development. It also offers dual enrollment courses through a partnership with a local community college, vocational certificates, and a business mentoring program that enhances students’ exposure to different types of careers.
Other rural charter schools have also used place-based education to draw upon their existing natural resources to encourage curiosity and teach STEM concepts while enhancing their connection to the community. Through a partnership with Oregon State University, Elkton Charter School in Elkton, Oregon, uses its proximity to the Umpqua River to create a natural resources curriculum where students engage in project-based learning: they study soil samples, mold, fungi, leaves, trees, and estuaries.
STEM-focused charter schools and school choice programs offer a potential solution for communities who wish to retain and adequately prepare their young populations for skilled careers in their community. Considering West Virginia is the third most rural state in the United States, it is a shame that lawmakers are failing to seize the opportunity to address the needs of students in rural communities by allowing for the creation of charter schools.