CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A controversial, omnibus education bill passed the House of Delegates after more than 15 hours of legislative action and nine hours of debate on the bill itself.
The final vote a little after 11 p.m. Wednesday was fairly narrow, 51-47 with two absences.
The bill now goes back to the state Senate. That body passed its own omnibus bill a couple of weeks ago, but the House originated its own so senators would need to go through the whole voting process again.
“I’m going to predict this bill will pass,” Delegate Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, said about an hour before the final vote. “I’m going to predict the governor will sign it. I’m going to predict I walked out of here tonight in bipartisan opposition.”
The Governor’s Office put out a congratulatory message on social media shortly after the bill’s passage.
“I’ve said from day one that education needs to be our centerpiece here in WV because it’s truly the key to driving our economy and unlocking our potential. Today all of us should be proud with the progress we’re making towards helping our children and our education community,” Gov. Jim Justice stated on Twitter.
The West Virginia Education Association expressed disappointment with the bill’s passage.
“There’s always hope,” WVEA President Dale Lee told reporters after the final vote. “But it appeared that everything was greased pretty good, so we’ll see what happens.”
Like previous versions, the bill includes a variety of proposed changes to the education system, including pay raises, charter schools, increased support personnel for schools, open enrollment, incentives to fill in-demand positions and financial support for small or struggling counties.
But the focus has been on a provision of the bill allowing charter schools in West Virginia.
“I believe in the data that 88 percent of the people in West Virginia are against this,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha. “Nobody in my district has asked me for it. Nobody.”
House Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, said other statistics show West Virginians want more flexibility in the school system, and that translates to charter schools.
“Let’s bring our students up, our schools up,” Householder said. “Let’s offer public charter schools.”
It was a long day at the state Capitol
Action started at 8 a.m. Wednesday with a public hearing. A House of Delegates floor session to consider a variety of legislation, including the omnibus bill, started at 11 a.m.
Delegates amended and passed 20 bills before ever getting to the omnibus bill.
Then, once delegates took up the omnibus bill, they considered about two dozen amendments.
One amendment that was adopted changed the rollout for charter schools. The House bill originally set a limit of 10.
The amendment by Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, allows starting with three charter schools and then, after 2023, establishing three more. After that, three more could be established every three years.
“It does allow for us to potentially authorize a handful of public charter schools and then to continually assess that as we go forward,” Espinosa said.
Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, called the change “an amendment to assuage the governor.” He called it “a smokescreen,” contending the result would actually be unlimited charters over time.
Delegate Mark Dean, R-Mingo, offered several amendments to change the charter schools provision.
One would have led to a county referendum of citizens once a local school board has decided to allow a charter school. Another would have held off on allowing charter schools until after regularly-scheduled elections of board members. Both proposals were defeated.
The last Dean amendment, one to eliminate all the charter school language in the bill, led to a lengthy floor debate before being defeated 45-52 with three absences.
“I just can’t bring myself to believe this is the right idea for West Virginia,” said Dean, who is principal of Gilbert PreK-8.
Espinosa argued against adopting the amendment removing the charters language.
“If we adopt this amendment before us, I think we can almost assure we will not reach agreement with the Senate,” Espinosa said.
Out of the bill of more than a hundred pages, Delegate Terry Waxman, R-Harrison described the focus on charter schools.
“This bill contains a lot of really good and necessary improvements to education,” she said. “But we’ve also heard a lot of angst expressed about the mere permission to establish a charter school.”
Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, objected to the charter schools, to the omnibus structure of the bill and to the repetition that has occurred over the past months.
“I’m tired of this process. I’m tired of doing this over and over,” he said.
Governor Justice called a special session on education betterment after lawmakers couldn’t agree on an omnibus bill that included a long-promised pay raise during the regular legislative session.
The state Senate passed its own version of an omnibus bill two weeks ago. At that point, Justice expressed concern that the special session would go nowhere.
On Wednesday night, he praised the House for passage of the bill.
“I’m thrilled that the @ took a major step toward building new opportunities for our children,” he said.