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Senate unveils new education reform package

CHARLESTON — Giving the citizens of West Virginia the start of the three-day weekend to review, the state Senate released their much-anticipated education reform package late Friday afternoon.

The 144-page document includes the senate’s answer to the controversial Senate Bill 451 that died in the house during the 2019 regular legislative session. The new bill, called the Student Success Act, includes several of the proposals the senate tried to pass in February — including charter schools –and includes some new proposals.

“The release of this draft of the West Virginia Student Success Act is a major effort by the senate to advance the cause of education reform in a bipartisan manner,” said Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, in a statement. “There is widespread recognition that our state’s education system can be improved. The Student Success Act will provide enhanced compensation for our teachers, more options for parents, and incredible assistance for students to achieve at the highest levels.”

While a public charter school program is included in the draft bill, it does not include any education savings account proposal, which was completely rejected by the house and also panned by the public during the Department of Education’s education roundtable forums held in March and April.

The bill also expands innovation zones, which would give public schools some of the same flexibility that charter schools have. It allows for the expansion of the West Virginia National Guard’s Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy, as well as the creation of two schools modeled after the academy.

The bill includes the 5 percent teacher and school service personnel pay raises, but it also gives more flexibility to county school boards to pay teachers more and removing requirements for salary equity between counties. It provides pay incentives for math and special education teachers, bonuses for teachers who are absent no more than four days during the school year and provides tax breaks for school supplies.

The Student Success Act also provides scholarship incentives for teachers to enter high-need classes, such as math and science, as well as counselors. The renamed Teacher Education Loan Repayment Program would erase college debt for teachers who work in the state for at least two years. It also provides for individualized development for classroom teachers, a Principal’s Academy for professional development and leadership training, and a survey of schools to study overcrowding and student-teacher ratios.

The bill allows for open enrollment for students who wish to cross county lines and attend another school. It calls for replacing instructional minutes with requiring at least five hour per school day of instructional time. Teachers would have final say on whether a student proceeds to the next grade.

County school systems could benefit from other provisions, such as basing funding on a net enrollment of 1,400 even if a county doesn’t meet that threshold. County regular levies could be raised, but only with a vote of the public. Another provision would decrease the percent of the levy rate used to calculate local share. A new provision could distribute allocated state aid in the form of block grants.

The Student Success Act includes several of the eight proposals that senate Democrats introduced Monday when lawmakers returned to fix vetoed legislation.

“We are encouraged to see the senate leadership embrace much of our proposed legislation,” said Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion. “We know that our ideas will work, and we are happy they agree. We’re very glad to have some common ground to move forward on.”

“We are grateful for the outstanding suggestions from the minority caucus, and we look forward to working with all parties to advance our shared goal of creating the best education system in America,” Carmichael said.

Gov. Jim Justice called the education special session immediately after the end of the regular session March 9 after his teacher/staff pay raise bill died and SB 451 failed. In a statement Friday, Justice praised the senate for its work on the new bill.

“I applaud the state Senate for making a significant move in attempting to create a bipartisan approach to education betterment,” Justice said. “I look forward to continuing to work with all members of the legislature, the state school board, and with all citizens of West Virginia in taking steps to make our education system better for students in the Mountain State.”

On Monday, the house passed a resolution creating four select committees on education reform. The 100 members of the house were divided into quarters to quickly assess education bills. The special session on education reform is expected to resume in the next two weeks.

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