Legislative News

Overview

Inside

The Thrasher Group

June 13, 2019 - Volume 39 Issue 10

By Jim Wallace

The next stage in the process of reforming West Virginia’s public education system will begin at 8:30 on the morning of Monday, June 17, when the House of Delegates is scheduled to resume work in the special legislative session called by Gov. Jim Justice for education “betterment.”

But many people inside and outside the legislature have expressed concern that education reform might fare no better in the special session than it did during the 60-day regular legislative session, when a slim majority of the Republican-controlled Senate insisted on sticking with Senate Bill 451, the huge and controversial omnibus education bill, which the Republican-controlled House soundly defeated. Again, with a slim majority, the Senate has approved Senate Bill 1039, another huge and controversial omnibus education bill called the Student Success Act, and sent it to an uncertain fate in the House, as well as doubts about whether the governor would sign it.

“I’m afraid this has gotten out of hand.” – Sen. Stephen Baldwin

“I feel like it’s Groundhog Day,” Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said last week during Senate debate, referring to the movie in which Bill Murray’s character was stuck in repeating the same day over and over again. “I’m afraid this has gotten out of hand.”

That’s a sentiment Gov. Justice shared on Sunday, June 2, the second of three days the Senate met. He expressed dismay at the course the special session he called back in March has taken.

“I think being here is not any good,” he said. “I think we’re spending taxpayers’ dollars. We should have already figured this out. We had months to get it done, and I don’t think it’s any good.”

Justice made his comments after meeting separately with Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats, but senators who came out of those meetings said the meetings did nothing to move education reform forward, and they criticized the governor for not doing more sooner to help legislators reach consensus.

“We have no idea why he showed up on the second day of the session,” Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said. “It did not influence anything at all in our caucus.”

For his part, Justice said public polling done on his behalf showed issues like charter schools do not rank high in importance for most West Virginians and he wished for an end to the special session he set into motion.

“All we’re doing is wasting more time, more people’s money and more taxpayer dollars,” he said. “If that’s what we’re going to do, we need to go home. That’s all there is to it.”

But as the Senate was about to meet for the third day, House Majority Whip and interim Education Chairman, Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said on the MetroNews Radio Network’s Talkline program he was disappointed with the lack of leadership Justice had shown on public education reform.

“Two weeks ago, the governor expressed tepid support for the Senate’s Student Success Act, but sadly I don’t think any of us was very confident the governor would maintain his support for meaningful education reform, including a modest amount of school choice, when we really needed him.” – Delegate Paul Espinosa

“Two weeks ago, the governor expressed tepid support for the Senate’s Student Success Act, but sadly I don’t think any of us was very confident the governor would maintain his support for meaningful education reform, including a modest amount of school choice, when we really needed him,” Espinosa said. “And frankly, if the governor had demonstrated leadership during the regular session, I really don’t think we’d be where we are today. And for the governor to suggest that because his polling indicates that reforming our public education system is not a top public priority, we should stand idly by while 90 percent of West Virginia’s high schools do not meet, or only partially meet, the state’s own standards for reading and 88 percent do not meet the state’s own standards for math, with all due respect, that’s not leadership, and I believe West Virginia students deserve better than that.”

The relationship between Justice and legislative leaders – all Republicans – deteriorated further since then. Late last week, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said he was unwilling to endorse Justice for re-election as governor. “I’m not one…who should want four more years of this type of leadership, or lack of leadership, at the Governor’s Mansion,” he said on Talkline Friday. Carmichael said the governor initially was enthusiastic about the Student Success Act and then later came out against it.

“There’s no consistency in leadership,” Carmichael said. “No focus on doing the right thing.”

Over the weekend, Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, stated in a paid-for opinion piece in local newspapers, “Jim Justice is an embarrassment to our state and should resign and try to attend to his family business obligations.” He followed up with similar statements on the radio on Monday.

Later on Monday, Justice denounced Blair. He said, “Craig Blair is a bully, a bully. That’s all there is to it.” He called Blair and Carmichael “halfway friends.” About the Senate-passed education reform legislation, Justice indicated Senate leaders have little chance of seeing it become law. “I think they’ve dug themselves a hole, and I’m not going to help them dig,” he said.

Thus, it is with turmoil between the Republican governor and Republican leaders in the legislature that education reform heads to the House of Delegates next week.

Current omnibus education bill is different from previous bill.

Senate Bill 1039 differs in several ways from Senate Bill 451. For example, Senate leaders took out a controversial provision to establish education savings accounts (ESAs) and put it into a separate bill, Senate Bill 1040. But Senate Bill 1039 still contains other controversial provisions, including authorization for charter schools and measures to make it more costly for teachers and school service workers to strike. A big question is whether that new version of an omnibus education bill can get support from a majority of delegates in the House or whether they will choose instead to pass a series of individual bills that address specific reform proposals.

Espinosa said Republican House members wanted to see what the Senate would send over. One concern was over who would authorize charter schools, he said, and he is pleased that local school boards would be the authorizers under Senate Bill 1039. He said the House has at least nine education reform bills already and another dozen could be introduced.

“The last thing we want is to end up where we were on [Senate Bill] 451,” Espinosa said. “If that’s not the direction members want to go, then we’ll pursue individual legislation.” He added, “I’m personally not interested in spending a lot of time on something if we don’t have the votes for it.”

On Thursday, House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, said on Talkline House leaders have a plan for handling education reform bills when the House gets back to work. First, she said, Espinosa is asking the Republicans in the House if Senate Bill 1039 provides a mechanism they can work with. If a majority of them say it does, they will place the bill in one of four select committees set up to consider education reform, she said, and other bills will be sent to three other committees.

“If the answer is no, then we have bills drafted to address the various topics of education betterment that will be divided amongst those four committees, and we’ll proceed from there,” Summers said.

Second, she said, they will see if the Democrats, who are in the minority, want to advance any legislation in a bipartisan manner. Summers said she spoke with House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, about it Wednesday and was waiting for him to get back to her after speaking with members of his caucus.

“I feel that the time is now to do education reform. We need to try to improve the education system in West Virginia, and 51 members of the House are going to decide our next steps forward.” – Delegate Amy Summers

“I do like the bill,” Summers said about Senate Bill 1039. “I feel that the time is now to do education reform. We need to try to improve the education system in West Virginia, and 51 members of the House are going to decide our next steps forward. I hope we can make some changes to help our children. I don’t like hearing the mantra all the time it’s about the kids, and then we have a bill that’s killed that increases the amount of time counselors can spend with children, provides millions of dollars for schools and might help us attract qualified math and special ed. teachers because we want to give families some choices in this.”

Summers said she’s not totally behind everything in the bill, but she’s willing to take it as a whole if the majority of House members want to do that. “If they don’t, I’m certainly willing to put individual bills on the table and look at each one of those and pass what we have the votes for,” she said.

Among the provisions of the bill she supports is the one that would allow county school boards to decide whether to authorize charter schools in their districts. “I definitely support that because we are giving control to the local county boards of education,” Summers said. “My county board has said they oppose them. All five members said to me, no, we do not like them. I support the concept. If my county says, no, we’re not going to have them, then my county will not have that, and I’m OK with that. Those people are elected individuals. They’re doing what the constituents tell them that they want.”

Although her county might not want charter schools, she said, she would not want to put a cap on the number of such schools in the state because that wouldn’t be fair to other counties.

House will let committees consider reform bills.

No matter which direction the House chooses to take, it will get there through a different process than the Senate used. The Senate, in its three days of special session meetings on June 1 through June 3, bypassed the normal process of sending legislation to be vetted in committees before it gets to the full body. By contrast, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, has chosen the unusual approach of sending the legislation not to the usual committees on education and finance but to four ad hoc select committees that include almost every member of the House with Hanshaw himself as a notable exception.

Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, will serve as chairman of Select Committee on Education Reform A. He normally serves as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Delegate Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh, will serve as vice-chairman. Delegate Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, will serve as chairman of Select Committee on Education Reform B. He otherwise is chairman of the House Health and Human Resources Committee. His vice-chairwoman will be Delegate Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha. Espinosa will be the chairman of Select Committee on Education Reform C. He normally is the majority whip but is a former chairman of the House Education Committee who has resumed that role temporarily since Delegate Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison, stepped down from the chairmanship this spring. The committee’s vice-chairman will be Delegate Marshall Wilson, R-Berkeley. Delegate Steve Westfall, R-Jackson, will serve as chairman of Select Committee on Education Reform D. He normally is a chairman of the House Banking and Insurance Committee. The vice-chairman will be Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh.

On whether the committees would consider the series of House bills introduced in the House or the two bills passed by the Senate, Espinosa said on Talkline last week they could go either way, but they don’t want to end up in an impasse as happened with Senate Bill 451.

“I certainly am not interested in spending a lot of time on something if we don’t have the votes for it, and that’ll be the process we’ll be engaged in in the next several days just trying to ascertain where our members are on various provisions in the bill, whether they’d prefer to proceed with consideration of Senate Bill 1039 or whether they’d prefer to consider individual pieces of legislation.” – Delegate Paul Espinosa

“If that’s not the direction our members want to go, then we’ll pursue individual legislation,” he said. “I certainly am not interested in spending a lot of time on something if we don’t have the votes for it, and that’ll be the process we’ll be engaged in in the next several days just trying to ascertain where our members are on various provisions in the bill, whether they’d prefer to proceed with consideration of Senate Bill 1039 or whether they’d prefer to consider individual pieces of legislation.”

So far, nine education reform bills have been introduced in the House, but more could be introduced when the House resumes work in the special session on June 17. The nine bills have been assigned to these committees:

  • Committee A
    • House Bill 135 – Increasing the amount that a faculty senate of a public school may allocate to a classroom
    • House Bill 139 – Authorizing a competitive grant program to implement vocational-technical education programs
    • House Bill 140 – Providing a bonus for teachers willing to teach in certain critical needs areas
    • House Bill 142 – Relating to modifications to the School Aid Formula
  • Committee B
    • House Bill 136 – Authorizing a study of student loan payments tax credits and a loan forgiveness program for teachers
  • Committee C
    • None
  • Committee D
    • House Bill 134 – Increasing annual salaries of public school teachers and school service personnel
    • House Bill 138 – Restoring local public school flexibility
    • House Bill 141 – Relating to school calendar and testing

It’s not clear why the bills have not been spread out more evenly among the four committees, but that is likely to change when the House gets back to work and more bills are introduced. Perhaps Committee C has been assigned no bills yet because it will get the Senate’s huge new omnibus education bill.

Senate president enthusiastically supports the new omnibus bill.

The Senate also had several bills introduced by Democrats that addressed specific issues of education reform, but Senate President Mitch Carmichael chose to park them in committees that never met and instead have the full Senate address just Senate Bill 1039 and Senate Bill 1040 during its three days of meetings.

Carmichael pitched those two bills at a news conference at the Capitol two days before the Senate was scheduled to meet.

“We should all be morally convicted and morally inspired to improve the condition of our education system in our state. It’s time to act.” – Senate President Mitch Carmichael

“We should all be morally convicted and morally inspired to improve the condition of our education system in our state,” he said. “It’s time to act.”

Using big charts, Carmichael cited statistics showing that West Virginia ranks poorly in student achievement compared to other states. For example, West Virginia ranks 49th in the nation for scores on the SAT college entrance exam. “Can anyone say that’s OK?” he asked. “There is no way to defend this system.” He said U.S. News & World Report rates George Washington High School in Charleston as the best in the state, but it ranks only 585th nationally. Few states have top high schools ranked lower nationally, he said.

Carmichael also cited the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which ranks West Virginia fourth-graders 36th in reading and 39th in mathematics but ranks eighth-graders 45th in reading and 46th in math. “This is the most convicting data on our education system,” he said, adding that the figures show students do worse the longer they are in the system.

Even the state’s own rankings show that 88 percent of West Virginia high schools do not meet the state’s standards for math and 80 percent don’t meet the standards for English language arts, he said. He doubted charter schools would perform worse than that.

“This is no indictment of our teachers, no indictment of our students, no indictment of our parents. It’s the system that’s failing them, and we’re defending it in this state. For decades, it’s been defended, and it’s time to change it.” – Senate President Mitch Carmichael

“This is no indictment of our teachers, no indictment of our students, no indictment of our parents,” Carmichael said. “It’s the system that’s failing them, and we’re defending it in this state. For decades, it’s been defended, and it’s time to change it.”

In regard to charter schools, Carmichael showed a map indicating that West Virginia is out of step with the rest of the country by not permitting them. The map showed that all states except six – Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Vermont and West Virginia – permit some form of charter schools.

“Is this a wild, crazy idea?” he asked. “Forty-four other states and the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico authorize charter schools.”

Carmichael said the Senate Republicans compromised in several ways in developing Senate Bill 1039 in an effort to get more support than Senate Bill 451 received. For example, they removed a provision for an independent entity to be able to authorize the creation of charter schools. Instead, the authorization of charter schools would be left generally to county school boards, although their decisions could be appealed to the state school board. Carmichael said that fits with a call by many people for more local control over education.

“If we look back on the history of West Virginia education delivery and how poorly we’ve done here, the studies overwhelmingly convict us for centralized control,” he said. “The local entities need to have more control. That is the essence of the education audit report that was done under the Tomblin administration.”

A new provision that was not considered in education reform legislation during the regular session would deliver state funding for school districts in the form of block grants, which would leave them with more flexibility in how to spend the money. “This is a monumental step forward in local control, and if somebody wants to stand up and oppose that for whatever reason, then they just do not believe in local control,” Carmichael said. In addition, the bill would provide more funding for districts with enrollment of fewer than 1,400 students.

However, Carmichael said, the bill would require county school boards to provide data on how they use their money to a transparency website, wvcheckbook.gov, which is maintained by the West Virginia Auditor’s Office. He said that is “one of the most transformative components” of the bill. Auditor J.B. McCuskey said many school boards already provide data to that website.

Another way the bill would provide for more local flexibility is by relaxing requirements for schools to become Innovation Zones, which allows them to try different methods of education short of becoming charter schools. The bill also would expand the Mountaineer Challenge Academy so it could take in as many as 600 cadets and create a second facility in Fayette County. Some people have suggested that the Mountaineer Challenge Academy, which uses military-style discipline to teach at-risk students in Preston County, is an example of a charter school.

To help fill vacant teaching positions, the bill would authorize increased compensation for math and special education teachers and permit school districts to provide additional pay for those in critical-need areas. It also would provide more funding for the Underwood-Smith Scholarship to encourage more college students to study to become teachers. To cut down on teacher absences, the bill would provide a $500 bonus for any teacher who uses not more than four days of leave per year.

In an effort to address the social-emotional issues faced by students living in poverty or in families affected by the state’s drug crisis, the bill would provide funding for an additional counselor or nurse in each school. Carmichael credited legislative Democrats for that proposal.

The bill would invest about $130 million in West Virginia’s traditional public education system, he said, and just a few million more for such provisions as charter schools. That includes funding for 5 percent pay raises for teachers and other school workers. Although the early draft of the bill would delay the raises until the 2020-2021 school year, the effective date was changed to move it up to the upcoming school year. “It will be implemented this year,” he said.

State superintendent likes most of Senate bill.

"For the most part, I support it.” – Supt. Steve Paine

After Carmichael’s news conference, state Supt. Steve Paine said about the new omnibus education reform bill on Talkline, “For the most part, I support it.”

Asked what he likes, Paine cited the additional social-emotional and mental health help for students, increased funding for small counties, more operational flexibility for school districts through block grants and expansion of the Underwood-Smith Scholarship to support more students who want to become teachers. Overall, he said, he supports having the state take a more hands-off approach in overseeing county school districts as long as they maintain certain levels of performance. Asked what he doesn’t like, Paine did not mention any items in the Student Success Act but said he was tired of the squabbling over education reform.

However, he indicated he is not enthusiastic about the provision for charter schools. “I wish I could get excited about charter schools,” he said. But he said research about charter schools’ success has revealed “a mixed bag at best.” They have been more successful in urban areas, so he questions how well charter schools would do in rural West Virginia.

But Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said she recently visited a successful charter school in a rural community in southern Ohio.

Senate action follows predictable pattern.

Carmichael had hoped to be able to suspend the Senate rule requiring bills to be read on three separate days, so that the Senate could complete its work all on Saturday, June 1, but that didn’t happen. Suspending rules requires a vote of four-fifths of members, so if all 20 Republicans had approved it, they still would have needed votes from eight of the Senate’s 14 Democrats. Instead, only 18 Republicans voted for the rule suspension. Sens. Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, and Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, joined with 13 Democrats in opposition. Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, was absent throughout the three days of meetings. The 18-to-15 vote became the pattern for most votes throughout the Senate’s deliberations.

An exception came on June 2, when not only Plymale but also Mann and Sen. Mark Mayard, R-Wayne, were absent and the Senate voted 17 to 14 to approve an amendment to Senate Bill 1039 that would specify that public worker strikes are unlawful, and therefore, school workers could be fired if they strike and their pay could be withheld on strike days. It also would prohibit county school superintendents from closing schools when strikes are expected.

After teachers and school service personnel held a nine-day, statewide strike last year, the legislature approved 5 percent pay raises for them. When they struck for two days this year, the House of Delegates killed Senate Bill 451. Thus, Senate leaders want to do all they can to discourage future strikes.

Although they didn’t need to strike to do it, many teachers crowded into Senate galleries and chanted outside the chamber on June 1. Fewer showed up the next two days.

The sponsor of the anti-strike amendment, Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said it would be simply “a codification of what is the current law of West Virginia.” That current law goes back to a 1990 decision by the West Virginia Supreme Court, which upheld Jefferson County Circuit Court’s preliminary injunction to end a strike there. “Public employees have no right to strike in the absence of express legislation or, at the very least, appropriate statutory provisions for collective bargaining, mediation, and arbitration,” the decision stated.

But Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, called the amendment “retribution.” Sen. Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, said preventing superintendents from closing schools in the face of strikes would run counter to the local flexibility that Republicans otherwise advocated. Prezioso called the anti-strike amendment “ill-founded” because whenever teachers strike they must make up the days they miss in school. Also, he objected to prohibiting any extracurricular activities on strike days, saying that penalizing students would be “just poking an eye back to teacher organizations.”

While Gov. Justice said he objected to provisions in the bill to authorize charter schools and downplay seniority in decisions to transfer or lay off teachers, he most disliked the provision to prohibit extracurricular activities on strike days.

“That needs to come off right now.” – Gov. Jim Justice 

“That needs to come off right now,” the governor said. “I’m a coach. What are you going to do in the middle of football season if we have a work stoppage, and we’re out for 10 days, and we can’t practice?” Suddenly resuming the season without adequate practice could endanger the well-being of students, he said.

When she spoke on Talkline Thursday, House Majority Leader Amy Summers said some delegates in the House have questioned why the anti-strike provision in the bill is necessary. “We’ll look at that closely,” she said. “I don’t think that it’s necessary to have that in there, but what we keep hearing is from the parents who are getting a little tired of the strike card being played.”

Senate education leader promotes many aspects of omnibus bill.

As Senate Bill 1039 came up for passage on June 3, Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, gave these as its key attributes:

  • Teachers and school service workers would get pay raises.
  • Teachers who spend 60 percent of their time teaching math and fulltime special education teachers would get three-step increases in pay to help fill areas of critical need.
  • Counties would have flexibility to use local funds to pay such teachers even more.
  • Teachers in remote locations or schools with high turnover rates could be paid more.
  • Teachers who serve as mentors to others could be paid more.
  • County school boards would be allowed to base decisions on transfer, reassignment or reduction of personnel on the same criteria used for hiring personnel. It would be permissive, not mandated.
  • The number of leave days employees could receive without saying why would increase from three to four. That was based on recommendations from school boards because it’s easier for them to plan for substitutes when they know someone will be out.
  • Teachers would get a bonus of $500 for using no more than four days of leave.
  • The Underwood-Smith Teaching Scholars Program would be modified to emphasize educators in areas of critical shortage. School counselors also could participate.
  • The amount of coverage from the Board of Risk and Insurance Management for teachers would be increased, and they would be notified each year of their insurance coverage.
  • Teachers would get tax credits to compensate for items they buy for their classrooms. Any credit not used by the end of one school year would carry over to the next year.
  • Charter schools would be permitted. They would have to meet the same civil rights, disability rights and immunization requirements as public schools do. They would be precluded from charging tuition or levying taxes. Elected officials would be prohibited from receiving any monetary consideration from charter schools. A charter school would have to have a governing board. Charter schools would have to participate in state assessments. They would have to adhere to strict accounting practices. They would have to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests. They would have the same reporting requirements as public schools and must participate in the West Virginia Education Information System. Only county school boards could authorize charter schools, unless they yield to the state school board. A charter school must accept any student who applies, although it could switch to a lottery system if it reaches capacity. A charter school would have to provide for special needs students, non-English speakers and students with disabilities, just as public schools do. Certain services could be contracted out. Charter school students could participate in extracurricular activities. The state board could establish an authorizer oversight fee based on per-student operational funding, so county boards that authorize charter schools would get reimbursed for their work. A contract for a charter school would have to have a plan for how to close the school. Each authorizer would have to make an annual report to the state superintendent. The state superintendent would have to publish an annual report on charter schools.
  • Charter schools would be allowed to participate in coverage from the Public Employees Insurance Agency but not required to do so.
  • Charter schools would be allowed to receive appropriations to serve special needs students.
  • Mountaineer Challenge Academy in Preston County could expand up to 600 cadets per year and establish a second location in Fayette County.
  • The Mountain State Digital Literacy Project would be established as a pilot program to provide professional development and support for schools that agree to participate. It would help them with digital literacy skills and internet safety. It would permit third-party contracting and require reporting to the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability.
  • Professional development would be expanded with an emphasis on being individualized for each classroom. “This is a very important key part we added to this code,” Rucker said, adding it would address teachers’ desire for professional development based on their needs.
  • All teachers would be requires to receive professional development on the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students.
  • The state school board would be required to promulgate rules for a principals’ academy.
  • School districts would be allowed to permit inter-county student transfers. Districts would have to establish attendance zones, which most already have. “The point is to allow students to go to the school that best fits their needs,” Rucker said.
  • The state school board would be required to present a report to legislators on any overcrowding in classrooms across the state.
  • Counselors would have to spend 80 percent of their time counseling, up from 75 percent. “This effectively lets the counselors do their job of counseling students, which is really what we want them to do,” Rucker said. “We heard from teachers about the need for counselors and more mental health professionals.”
  • The definition of the instructional day would change. “What we are doing here is we are treating the public schools the same as private schools,” Rucker said. “Currently in state code, we only require [an average of] five hours per day instruction to students for private schools. We are giving that same amount of time to public schools with the idea of greater flexibility. We’ve heard from teachers who are requesting more time for collaboration, more professional development time.” That collaboration and professional development time could happen throughout the year rather than in just five days. It would give more flexibility in rescheduling time missed to snow days.
  • Work stoppages would be illegal. In the case of work stoppages, extracurricular activities could not take place. County superintendents could not facilitate work stoppages by closing schools.
  • Teachers’ recommendations would be the primary consideration in the promotion of students. “They know the students better than anyone else,” Rucker said.
  • The decision whether to designate schools as Innovation Zones would shift from the state school board to county school boards. The process would be simplified and some hurdles would be removed. “Every public school in West Virginia should have the ability to innovate, to be flexible, to get a waiver from regulations that are keeping them back,” Rucker said.
  • The definition of professional student support personnel would be modified to include social workers and psychologists.
  • School systems with fewer than 1,400 students would get 10 percent more state aid to help pay for fixed costs.
  • The allowance for paying professional student support personnel would be increased so that every school could have a nurse, counselor or mental health professional, and attendance support professionals could be included.
  • The county allowance for current expenses would increase from 70.25 percent to 71.25 percent in Step 6A of the School Aid Formula.
  • School boards would get their money in block grants. “Giving this money unencumbered allows every single county to prioritize what they need,” Rucker said. “We are giving them the local control that they deserve because they know best. If they want to put more funding into mental health services, they can. If they want to put more funding into teacher salaries, they can. So this is a very important provision of this bill.”
  • School districts would be required to participate in a searchable budget database. The state superintendent would be required to provide the state auditor with information. The database would allow every taxpayer to know how tax dollars are spent. It would become effective July 1.

In addition, Rucker said, current rules for extracurricular activities would remain in force.

Bill divides Senate.

Reaction to the bill broke down mostly along party lines with Mann and Hamilton joining the Democrats in opposition to it. Sen. Paul Hardesty, D-Logan, said the bill has many good provisions, but his opposition was based on his many years serving on his county school board and his perception it was based more on policy positions from national conservative groups, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council.

“If this bill was split up and each issue was put into a standalone, pass-or-fail-on-its-own-merit bill, I could support many, many of the issues before us today.” – Sen. Paul Hardesty

“Large portions of this bill come directly from model legislation drafted by outside interests taken directly from their websites,” he said. “If this bill was split up and each issue was put into a standalone, pass-or-fail-on-its-own-merit bill, I could support many, many of the issues before us today.”

Hardesty said he voted against the bill because of four issues:

  • Charter schools – Some have been successful in urban settings, but West Virginia doesn’t have any city with a population above 50,000. They are unstable. One of every three charter schools that has opened after 2000 closed by 2010. “They are full of waste, fraud and abuse,” Hardesty said.
  • Open enrollment – It has unintended consequences. “This will be a transportation, logistics and cost nightmare,” he said. “This will also turn into an athletics nightmare as well.”
  • Reductions in force and transfers – Trying to use the same criteria for hiring in reduction-in-force and transfer situations would be problematic. “You cannot in good conscience discount the seniority of a school employee in a RIF or transfer process,” Hardesty said. “Let’s revamp the evaluation process and do it right.”
  • The $500 bonus for using no more than four personal leave days and the increase in the number of days from three to four. “I believe this was well-intentioned, but it won’t work,” he said. That’s because there are two tiers in the Teacher Retirement System, and longtime employees can still cash in unused personal days for retirement or health care benefits, while newer employees can’t, he said, so the longtime employees would take advantage of the bonuses because their days have value. “Every county in the state blows their budget out on substitute costs,” Hardesty said. “It’s happening faster and faster in the fiscal year.” He said the bill drafters should talk to someone who has run a school system. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but you’re not hitting what you’re shooting at, people,” he said.

Hardesty suggested that the bill drafters should have spoken with him, Mann and Baldwin, the three members of the Senate who previously served on county school boards.

We could have fixed a lot of this without alienating half of our state in the process,” he said. “Instead, you’ve chosen to listen to out-of-state stakeholders and advance their policies and positions.”

Baldwin cited a report that found charter schools as being very low on a list of items that affect student achievement. He gave three reasons for his opposition to Senate Bill 1039:

  • “It ought to be broken up. Apparently omnibus education bills have not been successful here for a while, so I don’t know why we’re trying it again. I don’t know why we’re holding the whole thing hostage for a few controversial things that are at the bottom of the student achievement list.”
  • “It’s not based on best practices from the world’s best schools. It’s based on trends in American education from the past 20 to 30 years, which the rest of the country has tried and they have only seen negligible results from.”
  • “This is not a bipartisan effort.”

Baldwin disagreed with the Republicans’ claim that six of the Democrats’ eight bills were included in Senate Bill 1039. He made these points:

  • The Democrats’ legislation included equity pay, but the Republican bill doesn’t.
  • The provisions for wrap-around services for students are different. Under Senate Bill 1039, half the mental health professionals would be part-time, while the Democrats’ bill would have funded them enough to be fulltime.
  • The classroom supply provisions are different. The Republicans’ bill would provide a tax credit for teachers, while Democrats would give them money directly, costing less and helping more.
  • The Innovation Zone provisions are vastly different. The Republican bill would get rid of current Innovation Zones altogether and let counties designate Innovation in Education schools by exempting them from state law, but counties cannot opt out of state law. The Democrats’ bill would let the state school board designate Innovation Zones and fund them.
  • The Democrats would take reform to the most basic level: the local school improvement council. Senate Bill 1039 does not mention local school improvement councils.
  • The Democrats would get to the root of social problems affecting kids by addressing the alarming rate of children born dependent on drugs.
  • The Democrats would put vocational education in middle school, which the omnibus bill does not.

Hamilton criticized Senate Bill 1039 for not addressing the issues of students who are homeless or whose parents have drug problems.

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, called it a “bad bill” that seemed to have come from a bizarre world in which everything that’s right is wrong and everything that’s wrong is right. Almost every educator, almost every school board, the state school board and the Department of Education oppose charter schools, he said, and yet they are a key part of the bill. “No real educator had any hand in this bill from West Virginia whatsoever,” he said.

But several Republicans said the bill offers many good reforms.

“It takes a comprehensive swing at a comprehensive problem, but it is not the only silver bullet to the issues we are dealing with in West Virginia,” Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said, adding he likes how it would put more control in the hands of county school boards. “I would much rather be able to go to somebody who lives and goes to the same grocery store that I do and express my concern with education. This is a powerful, powerful aspect of this bill.”

Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, said he supported it because his Northern Panhandle district would gain $7.9 million in additional funding. In reaction to criticism that Senate Bill 1039 is too big and includes too many items, he noted that the legislature in 2013, when Democrats still were in control, passed another omnibus education bill of 161 pages affecting 49 section of state code.

Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, said he wasn’t sure Senate Bill 1039 would fix West Virginia’s public education problems, but it’s worth trying. “We have to start someplace,” he said. “If it works, we’ll add to it. If it doesn’t, we’ll change it.”

Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, said opposition to the bill because of the provisions for charter schools was unreasonable. “We have not created a single charter school in this legislation – not one,” he said. “So if that becomes an issue, let’s let these local boards of education handle that. Let’s let them do it. We have to put our faith in them and quit trying to control every breath that’s taken in the boards of education around our state.”

“This bill contains historic and unprecedented investment in public education – and not charter schools – traditional public education funded in this bill at historic levels.” – Sen. Charles Trump

One of the strongest supporters of the bill was Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan. “This bill contains historic and unprecedented investment in public education – and not charter schools – traditional public education funded in this bill at historic levels,” he said.

Trump said the increased funding for traditional public education would be more than $127 million. He said that includes $68 million for teacher pay raises, almost $18 million for increases in local share funding, more than $2 million for math teachers, more than $5 million for special education teachers, more than $24 million to address the social-emotional and mental health problems of students, and more than $5 million for counties with fewer than 1,400 students.

When Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker closed debate on the bill, she rejected claims that it was based largely on policies promoted by out-of-state interest groups. She said every idea in the bill came from someone in West Virginia. She said she spent hours meeting with educators and school service personnel.

“We have been accused of not listening,” Rucker said. “Listening is not the same as agreeing.”

Among those she disagrees with are leaders of the unions representing teachers and school service workers. “I know very well that the unions do not like portions of this bill,” Rucker said. “I will have to just admit I’m here to represent more than just the unions in West Virginia.”

Her main point about Senate Bill 1039 was that it would reduce much of the bureaucracy in the public education system.

“The regulations that we have in this state are oppressive. I don’t believe that this is a good thing. I believe the teachers know the students better than anyone else, and they should be allowed to make decisions at their school that benefits their students. They should not have to go through a legislator in Charleston to pass a bill. – Sen. Patricia Rucker

“The regulations that we have in this state are oppressive,” Rucker said. “I don’t believe that this is a good thing. I believe the teachers know the students better than anyone else, and they should be allowed to make decisions at their school that benefits their students. They should not have to go through a legislator in Charleston to pass a bill. They should be able to go to their principal or, if need be, to their local county school board. But only in very severe cases should they have to go all the way to the state board.”

That’s one reason Senate Bill 1039 would make it easier for schools to qualify as Innovation Zones, she said. That provision was not in Senate Bill 451.

“In addition to allowing public charter schools, we are increasing funding for all schools in West Virginia,” Rucker said. “We are not trying to defund public education.”

After all the debate, the vote on Senate Bill 1039 went as expected: 18 Republicans voted for it and 13 Democrats and two Republicans voted against it.

Education savings accounts bill also passes.

The vote was the same for Senate Bill 1040 to establish education savings accounts, but debate was shorter. The bill was only on second reading on June 3, meaning that Democrats could have forced the Senate to return on June 4 for the third and final reading of the bill. However, all but two of them went along with Republicans in voting to suspend the rule requiring readings on three separate days.

Rucker explained that the bill would create the Education Savings Act with a new exemption from compulsory school attendance for ESA students. The Department of Education would have to project annually how much would be needed to fund ESAs, and then the legislature would have to appropriate that amount, she said. Each student would be eligible for about $3,850 a year, she said, and the estimated cost for the first year would be $945,000, which would be expected to go down in the second year and up again in the third year, based on estimates from the state Treasurer’s Office.

The Treasurer’s Office would operate the program using money provided by the Department of Education. In case funding would be insufficient, the program would fund students in the order their applications are submitted. They would be allowed to use the funding for a wide range of private educational expenses, such as tuition, educational software and tutoring. Parents would be able to apply for ESAs beginning July 1, 2020. Students from families with household incomes of more than $150,000 would not be eligible.

Sen. John Unger, R-Berkeley, expressed concern about Rucker’s statement that the legislature would have to appropriate the amount of funding needed each year for ESAs. He said binding future legislatures to make certain appropriations is prohibited.

When Sen. Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, asked who wrote the bill, Rucker said she did with the help of the Senate Education Committee’s attorney.

“Can you tell me why this bill was separated out?” Ihlenfeld asked.

“We decided to do it separately due to negative comments we received,” Rucker said.

The bill to authorize ESAs goes against a recommendation in the “West Virginia’s Voice” report produced by the Department of Education after it conducted several public forums around the state and gathered other comments online. The report said: “Do not implement ESAs due to public concerns over fraud, lack of accountability and concentrations of benefits to higher income families.”

When he spoke with reporters on June 2, Gov. Justice indicated he opposes Senate Bill 1040. He called it the “most egregious bill.”

However, Jason Huffman, state director of Americans for Prosperity-West Virginia, which promote such causes as lowering taxes and reducing regulations, praised the Senate for passing Senate Bill 1040, as well as Senate Bill 1039.

“West Virginia is one step closer to giving every West Virginia student access to an education that will help them succeed in life.” – Jason Huffman

“West Virginia is one step closer to giving every West Virginia student access to an education that will help them succeed in life,” he said. “The Student Success Act and universal education savings accounts are the bold reforms our state needs to improve education.”

Proposed amendment would weaken state school board’s power.

Although Senate Bill 1039 and Senate Bill 1040 were the only bills the Senate approved during its three days of meetings, another measure that could affect the future of West Virginia’s public education system got a start with the introduction of a resolution that could lead to a constitutional amendment. Senate Joint Resolution 101 is called the Supervision of Free Schools Modification Amendment.

If the legislature would pass it, the resolution would have voters decide whether to remove some of the autonomy of the West Virginia Board of Education. If approved, the proposed amendment would allow the legislature to review and change state board rules and policies. Currently, the West Virginia Constitution and state Supreme Court rulings provide the state board with a great amount of independence from the legislature in implementing policies and regulations.

Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair is the resolution’s lead sponsor. His co-sponsors are Sen. Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, and Sen. Sue Cline, R-Wyoming. Carmichael assigned the resolution to the Senate Judiciary Committee and then the Senate Finance Committee. Those committees did not meet when the Senate was at the Capitol to work on the education reform bills, and it’s not clear when they next will meet.

Editor’s Note – Jim Wallace is a former government reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail, former news director of West Virginia Public Radio and former news director of WWVA/WOVK radio in Wheeling. He now works for TSG Consulting, a public relations and governmental affairs company with offices in Charleston and Beckley. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from The Ohio State University and a master’s degree in journalism from West Virginia University. Wallace is the author of the 2012 book,A History of the West Virginia Capitol: The House of State.