Postponing education talk

It appears Republican leaders in the West Virginia Legislature are doing precisely what I suggested last week that they might. They are pulling the rug right out from under the feet of the state’s three big public school employee unions.

Union leaders are not happy about that.

In March, when a two-day strike by union members shut down most schools in the state, GOP lawmakers were intimidated enough to scrap their “omnibus education bill.” Gov. Jim Justice had threatened to veto it if it included charter schools, anyway. The governor reacted by telling legislators they would have to come back to Charleston for a special session on education.

For a time, it had been suggested the session would occur this month.

A special session was convened Monday — but not to talk about school-related matters. It will be solely to deal with bills lawmakers passed last winter, but which were vetoed by Justice for technical reasons.

Last week, before the special session had been called, I suggested GOP leaders might postpone action on education until June. Now, that’s the plan.

That puts the unions at a disadvantage — because there won’t be any children, and probably precious few other people, in school buildings after early June. No kids, no reason to stage a strike to shut schools down. Suddenly, the unions have lost their most powerful weapon to put pressure on legislators.

Union leaders understand that. Soon after the Republican plan became apparent, the heads of unions representing teachers and school service personnel demanded that the special session on education be canceled. “There is no need to rush through an ill-conceived plan that will harm our students and our state,” said Dale Lee, head of the West Virginia Education Association.

Lee and other union leaders complained they have not been part of legislators’ discussions about a new education bill.

That was the same complaint they made in February and March — but things are different this time around. Since March, “stakeholders” — including educators, students, parents and members of the general public — have had innumerable opportunities to speak their minds on what needs to be done about schools. Some of the public meetings were held by the unions.

Make no mistake about it: Lawmakers writing education bills know precisely how the unions feel about various issues involved. They know, for example, that the unions have a no-way, no-how attitude regarding charters and education savings accounts.

They also know they appear to have convinced Justice not to veto a bill that would include a few charter schools.

There will be no cancellation. There will be a special session on education, probably in June. If it includes charters, education savings accounts and other provisions to which the unions object, they will mobilize as many of their members as possible to stage demonstrations at the Capitol. And they will remind Republican leaders that, come the next election, the unions will pull out all the stops to defeat lawmakers who wouldn’t go along with them.

But loss of the strike weapon puts the unions at a disadvantage.

And, frankly, it makes them look bad in the eyes of some West Virginians who understand improvements in public schools can’t come too soon. Finally, some of the union members — those counting on lawmakers following through with their promise for another 5 percent pay raise — may not be happy with a suggestion that action on it be delayed.

Legislators ought to hold their session as early in June as possible. Here’s why: Some of the needed improvements they are likely to discuss will take time to implement. Putting more counselors and psychologists in schools might happen by September if the mandate is issued in June.

Wait until school has started, however, and the improvements won’t happen until the second semester, at the earliest.

By all means, have a spirited argument about schools in June — but let’s get something done.

— Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.


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