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Senate OKs education reform package

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Senate has passed signature education legislation that divided the body along mostly party lines.

Senate Bill 451, the education omnibus bill, passed out of the Senate Monday in a 18-16 vote. Two Senate Republicans — Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, and Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur — continued to vote with Senate Democrats against the bill after they voted for failed amendments to remove controversial provisions from the bill.

“It’s a historic, great day for the State of West Virginia,” said Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, at a press conference held immediately after the vote Monday afternoon. “We are so thrilled about the vote today and the aspect of finally, comprehensively, reforming the education system in West Virginia.”

Carmichael was joined by other Republican senators, and representatives of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the West Virginia Manufacturers Association. Praise was heaped upon Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, who shepherded the bill through the Senate.

“It obviously takes an excellent team of courageous folks who are determined to do the right thing no matter the political pressure,” Rucker said. “I ran on this when I decided to run for the state Senate. This is, to me, a promise kept.”

Debate on SB 451 lasted for over 2 ¢ hours Monday afternoon. When speaking about the bill, state Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, compared it to the R.M.S. Titanic and its fateful voyage and sinking at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

“I’ve searched for a week to find a metaphor for this bill,” Woelfel said. “We know what happened.”

Woelfel said the bill violates the constitutional provisions calling for a “thorough and efficient system of free schools” and requiring a bill to address a single subject. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, rejected Woelfel’s argument, saying the bill is in line with the state constitution.

“The object of this bill…is comprehensive reform of public education,” Trump said. “It is admittedly a broad object, but it is a single object. I think everything I’ve seen in this bill…fits in a constitutional manner within it.”

Some of the more contentious provisions of the bill include the creation of a public charter school system. It would also create 2,500 first-come-first-serve education savings accounts for parents making a combined household income of less than $150,000. Parents can use these accounts for educational expenses, ranging from tutoring and after-school programs, to private schools and the costs associated with that.

“(SB 451) is actually making significant, demonstrative, effective, long-lasting generational change in West Virginia,” said state Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam. “A yes vote on this bill gives us a ladder to climb from 48th.”

Other provisions are aimed at unions and discouraging teacher strikes. In the bill, unions would need annual permission before taking dues from teachers’ paychecks. Teacher pay could be docked during any work stoppage, and extracurricular activities would be canceled during a walk-out. The bill also includes a nonseverability clause, rendering all aspects of the bill invalid if any portion of the bill is successfully challenged in court.

Senate Democrats criticized the Republican majority for the perception that teachers and county school staff were not consulted when crafting SB 451.

“The true policy experts from West Virginia — that being the state Board of Education, 55 county boards of education, 55 county superintendents, 55 county special education directors, administrators and principals all across this great State of West Virginia — had no opportunity to provide any input into these so-called policy decisions,” said state Sen. Paul Hardesty, D-Logan.

SB 451 includes the 5 percent salary increase for teachers and school service personnel originally proposed by Gov. Jim Justice and supported by Republican lawmakers in October 2018. This is in addition to the 5 percent they received last year.

The bill has a $250 annual tax credit for teachers to use for educational purchases, gives teachers input on student promotions to the next grade, and a $2,000 incentive for teachers to complete a specialized math course. Teachers would receive an annual $500 bonus for being absent less than four days during the school year. For every 10 days of sick leave teachers bank, they would receive a $500 bonus upon retirement.

The education omnibus gives counties more say over hiring and recruitment of teachers. Teachers who spend 60 percent of their time teaching math would be paid three steps higher than their current pay. Counties could also raise salaries to recruit teachers for high-need subjects or as incentive to re-locate in rural parts of the state. Employment decisions by counties would no longer consider seniority as the primary factor in hiring or retaining teachers.

The bill also gives counties increased flexibility to raise regular levy rates by majority vote of the school board, though the board would need to get approval from voters. It also uses the school aid formula to fund each county school at 1,400 students, including schools that have fewer students. SB 451 caps the local share max at 2015/2016 levels.

State Sen. Chandler Swope, R-Mercer, again using the Titanic as a metaphor, said SB 451 finally gives the state a chance to avoid hitting the iceberg.

“We know we have a ship, we know we have an iceberg in front of us, and someone is the captain,” Swope said. “This body has a responsibility to steer that ship…This bill is the best chance we have to start steering away from the iceberg. The captain of the Titanic didn’t know there was an iceberg. We do.”

SB 451 now heads to the House of Delegates for consideration. Justice said he would veto any bill that includes nonseverability or charter schools, though at a Monday press conference he expressed support for a pilot charter school program.

“If we could come back with some watered-down charter school thing and try a pilot-type project…I could maybe be for that,” Justice said. “If we’re going charter schools statewide and we’re going to jump in that pool from the get go, I’m not there at all.”

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