Republicans hold the majorities in the state House of Delegates and the Senate. The state’s Governor is a Republican. With those advantages, you might think that Republicans can pass just about any bill they want this legislative session.
However, when it comes to the omnibus education bill, legislative life is a little more complicated.
The bill is massive—145 pages—and, if approved, would significantly change how public education is delivered in West Virginia. The bill had an awkward roll out last week with several different versions circulating, giving rise to criticism by Democrats on the Senate Education Committee that they were unsure which was the working text.
(Read more about the bill from Brad McElhinny here.)
The committee received a one-hour explanation on Thursday, followed by five hours of debate on Friday before being passed out of committee on a party line vote. Frankly, the committee did not have enough time or expert witness testimony to make a thorough review of everything in the bill.
Then Republicans, apparently fearful that the bill would fail in the Finance Committee, took the unusual step of bringing the bill to the floor of the Senate meeting as committee-of-the-whole to provide a fact-finding forum for the bill.
Even some Republican Senators said on the floor that they are being bombarded by constituents with questions about the bill that they cannot answer.
The pay raise and benefit improvements are straightforward and the least controversial parts of the bill—an average five percent increase for teachers and service workers, plus the ability to “bank” unused sick leave toward their health insurance when they retire.
However, after that the bill delves into more contentious issues including increasing pay and scholarship opportunities for teachers in hard to fill positions like math and special ed and teachers willing to locate in geographic areas where there are critical needs.
The bill also opens the door for charter schools and education savings accounts, increases the maximum class size in K through 6th grade from 25 to 28 students, requires teacher unions to get permission from members annually to have dues deducted from the paycheck and prohibits striking teachers from being paid.
Monday, representatives of the two state teacher unions, the service workers union and associations representing county superintendents and school principals all gathered to call on lawmakers to slow down the process to give the interest groups time to digest and debate the bill.
Union leaders believe Republicans are using the pay raise and benefit improvements as leverage to push through more controversial elements, and that may be true. Now we must see how this plays out.
Senate Republican leaders want to finish the bill in time to override a potential veto by the Governor. Justice has already said he opposes charter schools, so that could be enough for him to reject the bill.
Teacher and service worker unions demonstrated their considerable influence last year by going on strike and flooding the Capitol, leading the Governor and Republicans to capitulate and provide an average five percent pay raise and a promise to find long term solutions to PEIA.
Senate Republicans may have bitten off more than they can chew with this sweeping bill, and it may collapse under its own weight. However, teachers must be careful here. They had most of the public on their side with last year’s strike for pay and health benefits. Will the public be as supportive if the teacher grievances are over charter schools or better pay to hire an algebra teacher?