Committee passes watered-down package

CHARLESTON — Vowing to meet past midnight, the House Education Committee passed out the West Virginia Senate education reform package and removed more of the provisions that teachers, unions and county school boards found controversial.

The committee passed Senate Bill 451, the education omnibus bill, 15-10 on Friday before sending it to the House Finance Committee, which will look at the bill next week.

Amendments removing education savings accounts and docking teacher pay and extracurricular activities during a work stoppage passed with some Republicans crossing party lines to vote with Democratic committee members. Amendments allowing all 55 counties to apply for two slots to convert elementary schools into a public charter schools and restoring funding for innovation zones also passed.

“Certainly, I commend the committee for their work,” said House Majority Whip Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson. “They obviously went through the legislation very carefully. I’m certainly looking forward to having the finance committee weigh in and further perfect the legislation.”

The committee first received the bill Wednesday, changing several of the provisions that the state Senate included in the bill, including charter schools. The original Senate bill created a statewide public charter school program with multiple authorizers. The House Education Committee’s first draft Wednesday limited that to six charter schools statewide. By Thursday night, the program was reduced to a two-school pilot program, with one charter being allowed in Kanawha County and the other in Cabell County.

Friday’s amendment changed the charter pilot program to allow only two elementary schools in the state to be converted to a charter school. The school would have to be a low-performing school and receive federal assistance for the number of low-income students at the school. The school would to be approved by the county board of education and a majority of parents and school employees.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said unions still didn’t like the limited charter school pilot project. Union leaders are meeting in Flatwoods today to discuss the next steps after teachers and staff in all 55 counties voted this week to give state union officials authorization to call a strike at their discretion.

“There was a lot of bad that was taken out, but there are still some things that we don’t agree with and can’t support,” Lee said. “We’re still not pleased with even the two pilot charter schools. We just believe that is not the right way to go.”

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, were removed from the bill Friday even after the committee significantly limited their scope. In the Senate proposal, ESAs were open to all parents to apply. Since Wednesday, the House changed it so only the parents of special needs students on Individualized Education Plans who met state and federal requirements could apply.

“We’ve struggled a lot of hours on this bill,” said Delegate Roy Cooper, R-Summers. “To a lot of us, education savings accounts have gone beyond what we would stand for, what we would accept in an education package.”

An amendment to remove a Senate provision that would have docked teacher pay during a work stoppage and canceled extracurricular events until the schools reopened was rejected at first, but a motion to reconsider the vote was approved and it passed 15-10.

Delegate Amanda Estep-Burton, D-Kanawha, said the work stoppage provision was a “punitive” attempt to intimidate teachers from striking again, as they did last year.

“If you define ‘retaliation,’ this section says I’m retaliating against what happened last year in our legislature,” Estep-Burton said. “Senate Bill 451 is a retaliation bill. I’m not going to pretend that it is not. It’s punitive and has no place in this bill.”

One amendment that had bipartisan support restored funding for innovation zones, a grant program through the state Department of Education that allowed schools more flexibility to find ways to improve student learning and curb dropout rates.

“We are pleased with the funding of innovation zones,” Lee said. “We think that is more conducive to improving education in West Virginia than a charter school would be.”

Earlier this week the committee removed other provisions deemed controversial in the Senate’s bill, including provisions requiring unions to receive annual approval before taking dues from teacher and school service employee paychecks, and a nonseverability clause, which would have rendered the entire bill invalid if any part of it was successfully challenged in court.

Some of the provisions of SB 451 include more funding options for county school systems, pay raises for teachers and school staff, additional pay for math teachers, the ability to do differential pay in counties, teacher tax credits, and the ability to bank annual leave for retirement bonuses.

But even with all the changes to make the bill less controversial, Democrats on the committee still are concerned that those provisions could be amended back into the bill as it makes its way through the House.

“While we have improved it somewhat, we haven’t improved it enough,” said Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson. “To the degree that we have improved it, I am convinced it’s going to get worse again at its next stops…I don’t want my name on the final product of this bill.”

School choice advocates are also disappointed in the watering down and outright removal of proposals that would have given parents more options for educating their children.

“Our vision for re-imagining K-12 education was much more expansive than what this bill has to offer as it’s been amended by this committee, but that’s how committee processes go and we look forward to the next committee,” said Jason Huffman, state director for the conservative Americans for Prosperity.

The House Finance Committee is having two public hearings Monday, Feb. 11, at 8 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. in the House Chamber to hear from supporters and detractors of SB 451.