When the 2019 legislative session begins next month we should watch even more closely than usual what happens on the education front, particularly with two new committee chairs. Senator Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson) will head the Senate Education Committee while Delegate Danny Hamrick (R-Harrison) will be in charge of the House Education Committee.
Hamrick is entering his fourth two-year term, but has never been the chair of a major committee while Rucker was just elected to the Senate in 2016 and she is also heading up a primary committee for the first time.
Public education is highly personal—for teachers, administrators, parents and policy makers. The issues are often emotional and complicated by endless state and federal laws and guidelines. Frequently, change agents butt heads with the powerful forces of the status quo.
The chairmen often just wear down. Outgoing House Education chairman Paul Espinosa was wiped out after three years and Senate Ed Chair Kenny Mann was done with it after two years. Typically, legislators who want leadership positions are not clamoring for the Education chairmanship.
However, Hamrick and Rucker were. Rucker said her interest in education was the primary reason she ran for office and Hamrick openly lobbied House Speaker Roger Hanshaw for the job.
The conservative Republican education agenda often clashes with the state’s two influential teacher unions—the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers West Virginia. Last session, anger over pay and health insurance triggered a historic strike that shut down schools and brought thousands of chanting teachers and service workers to the halls of the Capitol.
The strike and protests led to an average five percent pay raise and Governor Justice has already promised another five percent raise and $100 million additional dollars to the Public Employee Insurance Agency to hold down premiums and out-of-pocket costs.
But there are many other education related issues that are bound to arise such as workplace and seniority rules, curriculum, vouchers for parents who want to send their children to private schools or home school them, and possibly even making it easier for parents to opt out of having their children vaccinated as a condition for enrollment.
Rucker has already said that while she supports Justice’s pay raise plan, she would also like to see locality pay where teachers would make more money if they work in communities where the cost of living is higher. This is a particularly relevant issue in the eastern panhandle since teachers can drive to Maryland or Virginia and make significantly more money.
Meanwhile, looming over these and other issues is the most critical problem of all–student achievement. For example, the state Department of Education’s Balanced Scorecard released earlier this year said eighty-eight percent of the state’s 116 high schools were rated below “below the expected level” in math. One of the issues here is a shortage of qualified math teachers. Too many students end their public education in West Virginia ill prepared for the work force or college.
Rucker and Hamrick are both passionate about education, and their interest led them to pursue these challenging positions. But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.