Work ongoing on education reform session

CHARLESTON — Much focus has been on what Gov. Jim Justice and Republican lawmakers are planning for the resumption of the education betterment special session likely next month, but Democratic lawmakers in the House of Delegates and Senate have ideas of their own.

Monday’s resumption of the special session was focused on fixing and passing vetoed legislation. Members of the Senate Democratic Caucus held a press conference just prior to the start of the 2 p.m. session to promote several proposals they believe can help improve education.

“This a combination of many months of work on the part of the Democrats in both the House and in the Senate,” said Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion. “This legislation is for the betterment of education in the State of West Virginia. I don’t think anybody can find any piece of legislation we’re introducing to be objectionable.”

Senate Democrats introduced eight bills Monday with House Democrats also joining with their colleagues to introduce the same bills.

“It’s important to note that there is no silver bullet that’s going to turn around the state’s educational system overnight,” said House Minority Leader Tim Miley. “These bills, we believe, will help address the root causes of the problems that we’re finding here in West Virginia, otherwise we will continue to score poorly across the state. We look forward to working with our counterparts in the House and Senate, as well as the Republicans in the House and Senate.”

The cost of all eight bills introduced is more than $153 million. The largest cost is $80 million for the 5 percent pay raises for teachers and school service personnel, which Justice proposed in October, but died during the regular session after the Senate refused to take up the bill. Another bill would provide $1.9 million to fund purchases of classroom supplies. One bill would provide an additional $17.1 million to amend the state school aid formula to give more local control of funding.

“It’s no big surprise that the key to better education in West Virginia is funding,” said state Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison. “That’s something we’ve been bad at for the last six years.”

The next biggest cost is $41 million to provide at least one counselor or nurse in each school in the state. A similar proposal in Senate Bill 451, the omnibus bill pushed by Senate Republicans during the regular session, included $24 million in additional funding for counselors and nurses in schools to help students affected by the opioid epidemic.

“We heard this time and time again no matter who we talked to,” said Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier. “We are proposing we amend the (school aid formula) such so we can hire at least one full-time mental health professional in every school in the state of West Virginia.”

Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, said one bill would allow for more innovation zones – schools that have greater flexibility and freedom from certain state education rules to try new ways of increasing learning. The bill also unties the hands of local school improvement councils and virtual schools. The entire package will cost $5 million.

“When you look out on innovation zones, we didn’t expand them enough,” Plymale said. “We created too many obstacles. We’re lessening the obstacles to be able to do innovation zones locally.”

In effort to prepare students for the workforce, Senate Democrats introduced a bill to create a $5 million program to expand vocational education in middle schools. Sen. Glenn Jeffries, D-Putnam, called the draft legislation a “jobs opportunity bill.”

“We’re going to dive down deeper into our education system and into the middle school level,” Jeffries said. “Maybe some of those students don’t want to attend a four-year college. Maybe they just want to get out into the field and be able to work with their hands. That’s what this program is going to be for. It’s something we see, and we need in West Virginia.”

The last proposal, projected to cost $3 million, would expand the Drug-Free Mother-Baby pilot programs under the Department of Health and Human Resources. The program is designed to reduce the number of infants born with drug addictions.

“We have a very high number of infants, newborns, who are born dependent upon substances,” Baldwin said. “That follows them throughout their life as a student, and our teachers and educators are dealing with that for years to come.”

The bills come after Senate Democrats held their own listening tours across the state after the end of the 2019 regular session March 9. These were separate from the eight roundtable events held regionally by the state Department of Education around the same time.

Justice called a special session for education betterment after the demise of his teacher and staff pay raise proposal and the death of SB 451 in the House. The bill died when lawmakers could not agree on Senate proposals for public charter schools and education savings accounts.

“When (SB 451) was rolled out, all of the key stakeholders had been ignored,” said state Sen. Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio. “Instead, outside groups had a chance to weigh in and create a piece of legislation which was really legislation by ambush when we came here in January. As a brand-new member of the legislature, I was shocked that was how we did business in the capitol.”

Senate and House Democrats hope that Republican leaders will take a serious look at their proposed legislation. After Senate Democrats released draft text of their legislation last week, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said many of these ideas mirrored proposals in SB 451.

“I am pleased that Senate Democrats have finally offered ideas and submitted bills which they have prepared for a special session on education,” Carmichael said in a statement. I am especially pleased that most of these ideas are components of our original comprehensive education reform effort that they opposed during the Regular Session. It has often been said that the sincerest form of flattery is imitation. I look forward to their support as we implement many of these ideas as part of our approach to improving student success in West Virginia.”