CHARLESTON, W.Va. — More than 250 lawmakers, parents, union leaders and educators attended the West Virginia Department of Education’s third summit Wednesday on possible actions during the special legislative session on education to be held later this year.
The event, held at Capital High School, allowed various stakeholders the opportunity to voice their concerns during roundtable discussions. State lawmakers and union leaders were allowed to listen to the participants’ comments but discouraged from making comments.
The department began the forums Monday with five additional sessions scheduled.
“I made this statement on the floor of the state Senate: Instead of getting input from out-of-state interests, let’s hear from the true policy experts, the people of West Virginia,” Sen. Paul Hardesty, D-Logan, said.
The purpose of the forums is to allow stakeholders the ability to speak about issues such as funding, school choice and the future of education in West Virginia with the goal of providing lawmakers with information to guide the special session. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Consensus Building Institute is responsible for collecting responses for a report.
Hardesty is among a handful of individuals who have attended multiple sessions; he participated in Monday’s event at Cabell-Midland High School and heard from teachers and other education employees Tuesday during a separate hearing in Greenbrier County. Senate Democrats organized the event.
“The people from the outside do not understand the product being delivered to these schools every day,” said Hardesty, the former president of the Logan County Board of Education.
“These children are just trying to exist. Yes, we’re trying to educate them, but we’re trying to make sure some of these kids get one day to the next because they do come from broken homes.”
Tuesday’s forum took place at Mount View High School in Welch.
Organizers based the group discussions on concerns of educators and provisions of the failed omnibus education bill, in which charter schools and education savings accounts were the legislation’s most controversial sections.
Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said there is support for portions of the legislation which he saw during Monday’s event.
“It’s a big bill,” he said. “Getting all those topics communicated to the public to realize a lot of the things they are asking for are in there if they actually take a look at it instead of just hearing sound bites.”
Tarr said he’s confident parts of Senate Bill 451 will be considered during the special session.
“This time, this is the only thing we’ve got to concentrate on. It’s got our focus, so I think there could be a little bit more in it. I think you’ll see a lot of what is in there already,” he added.
Fred Albert, president of the state’s American Federation of Teachers Chapter, and West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee agreed certain provisions are worth considering again, such as decreasing the local share cap for school funding, additional professional support and the education tax credit.
“I hope those parts will come back,” Albert said. “We’ve had a loud voice in saying we don’t need charter schools in West Virginia. We already have a choice for parents and students if they want to go to private schools (or) if they want to home school.”
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, D-Jefferson, said last week in Parkersburg she aims to propose the full omnibus legislation. She added there is no fear in education because, according to her, the system lacks accountability and competition.
“There is fear,” Lee argued. “Educators fear for their kids. We fear that when they go home, they won’t have the support that they need, they won’t have the food that they need, they won’t have the caring people — in many cases — that they need. We fear that we’re not reaching them as much as we should.”
Lee added lawmakers should consider each proposed provision individually rather than a single sweeping bill.
“There should be individual bills so that everything runs on its own merit,” he said.
Yet House of Delegates Education Committee Chairman Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison, said it is too early to say if the Legislature will take that approach.
“I can’t speak for the Senate and what their plans would be,” he said. “From the House, I’m willing to approach it any way that our members feel like are necessary or the best way to do it.”
The reaction to the events from participants has been positive. Hamrick, who attended the first three events, said the sessions allow lawmakers to get a diversity of opinion.
“The answers in Huntington were very different from the answers in Welch, so I think it’s good the department and a lot of the legislators decided to travel the state and hit a bunch of different areas,” he said.
The department will host another forum Thursday at Beckley’s Woodrow Wilson High School beginning at 6 p.m.