Senators expand definitions of learning pods, micro schools

Photo Courtesy/WV Legislative Photography Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin said a bill voted on by the state Senate exempts micro schools and learning pods exempt from the same safety requirements of private schools.

CHARLESTON — An attempt by Republican members of the West Virginia Senate to expand capacity for micro schools and learning pods became a debate over public versus private education.

The Senate passed Senate Bill 268 Friday morning, creating an exemption from compulsory school attendance for children who participate in learning pods or micro schools. The bill passed 21-13. Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, and Sen. David Stover, R-Wyoming, voted with the Democratic minority against the bill.

The Republican majority adopted several amendments to SB 268, including an amendment from Senate Education Committee Chairman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, that expands the capacity of a learning pod or micro school up to 100 students.

An amendment from Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Randolph, would allow learning pods and micro schools to submit composite academic assessment results to county school superintendents instead of submitting those results for each individual student. An amendment from Sen. Michael Romano, D-Harrison, would require learning pods and micro schools with students requiring special education instruction to install video cameras in classrooms.

Learning pods are defined as a voluntary association of parents choosing to group their children together to participate in K-12 instruction as an alternative to enrolling in public schools, private schools and home school. A micro school is a tuition-charging school initiated by one or more teachers.

“Home schooling is when a parent decides to educate their own child,” Rucker said. “In a micro school or learning pods, it is possible that someone other than the parent is educating the child.”

An unsuccessful amendment offered by Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, would have required learning pods and micro schools to abide by the same health and safety regulations required upon private, parochial and church schools. These include fire, health and safety inspections and having crisis response plans.

In speaking against the bill, Baldwin said that SB 268 provides the same abilities as private schools, including similar capacities, while not requiring the same level of safety required of private schools.

“This is exactly how private schools do it,” Baldwin said. “If it walks like a duck. I feel like I’m in Bizarro World. This is exactly how private schools do it. We’re talking about the same size. We’re talking about a lot of people here together without basic parameters.”

Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, said SB 268 is another tool in the toolbox for parents along with public charter schools and the Hope Scholarship education savings account program. Both of those programs are facing legal challenges.

“This is not that big of a deal, people,” Smith said. “It’s something we need to try. If it doesn’t work, we’ll change it. But we’re beating a dead horse to death. Let’s just give it a try.”

“What we are talking about here is an unregulated school system,” Romano said in response to Smith. “Parents who don’t want to take the time to home school their kids will be able to form groups where they dump their kids off, and who knows what’s going to happen to them under this scheme.”

SB 268 now heads to the House of Delegates for further consideration.


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