Omnibus Bill

Right idea, wrong strategy

Decisive action needs to be taken to improve public schools in West Virginia. State Senate Bill 451 is the right idea with the wrong strategy, however.

Republican leaders in the Senate have taken what amounts to an all-or-nothing approach in SB 451, the so-called “omnibus education bill.” It is 137 pages long, with dozens of important provisions.

Some clearly would improve public schools. An example is a section allowing teachers in some specialties, including mathematics and special education, to be paid slightly more than their peers.

Some aspects of the bill are worrisome. Among them is its cost — as much as $367 million, including pay raises for public school teachers and service personnel.

But the two key sections of SB 451 are one granting pay raises to educators and school service personnel and another laying the groundwork for a system of private charter schools in West Virginia.

Teachers’ unions see charter schools as a threat to funding for public schools. Proponents of the idea say charters would give parents more choice in how their children are educated.

Clearly, lawmakers who want charter schools were hoping they could get them through a bill that also includes the pay raises.

But the three unions that coordinated a nine-day shutdown of public schools last year are having none of it. They are threatening another work stoppage if SB 451 proceeds.

Legislators have watched for many years as the state Department of Education and state Board of Education promised better schools were just around the corner. Yet severe shortcomings remain obvious. It is understandable that many lawmakers believe now is the time for decisive action.

And — need we add this? — legislators elected by and representing the people of West Virginia should do what they believe is right for schools in our state. They should not allow themselves to be diverted from that by any pressure group.

Still, the debate among Mountain State residents should be a clear one — and that may mean breaking SB 451 into three pieces is a good choice for the House of Delegates. One bill should handle pay raises. Another should deal with charter schools. The third should address other reforms envisioned in SB 451.

Senate leaders hoped lumping everything into one package would ensure worthwhile reform initiatives are undertaken. There is danger that, to the contrary, much that is good could be lost if the SB 451 plan fails. House leaders should guard against that.