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Senate passes bill meant to improve student access to community college

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Senators unanimously passed a bill aimed at steering more West Virginia students into vocational and technical fields.

Patricia Rucker

“The goal of this bill is to expand opportunities and getting West Virginians into jobs, and not just any jobs but high paying jobs,” Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, told fellow senators. “I urge passage of the bill.”

The vote wound up being 34-0.

Senate Bill 1 was considered a top priority for the body. It would provide financial support for students pursuing associates degrees or certificates after they have pulled down all other available state and federal money.

Several senators made reference to West Virginia’s relatively low educational attainment rates as well as the state’s worst-in-the national workforce participation rate.

Roman Prezioso

“I stand in support of Senate Bill 1,” said Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso. “I truly believe the education system we have is the foundation of this country.”

The Senate passed almost exactly the same bill last year, only to see it bog down in the House of Delegates.

Several floor speeches by senators expressed hope that won’t happen again.

Craig Blair

“I don’t want to go down the path of last year is what I’m trying to get at,” said Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair. “It is not an entitlement in any way. It’s an investment in the people of West Virginia. It’s a big deal.”

Blair’s reference to an entitlement might have been in reaction to comments by Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, who this week announced a Primary Election challenge to Senate President Mitch Carmichael.

Butler called the community college an entitlement program.

Jim Butler

“We are failing our kids from preschool to the 12th grade. The kids going into technical schools and the colleges now, it’s over 50 percent [who] need remediation, because we’re not doing our job in our primary schools,” he said.

“If we’re going to start a new program and put money toward something, let’s put money toward our schools and let adults pay for their own education through grants, through loans, through working our way through it.”

Carmichael commented after the bill’s passage, “Anyone who wants to construe this as an entitlement is ignorant and uninformed. It doesn’t and it cannot be the case. This is an investment in the people of West Virginia, and I am so proud of the Senate.”

The cost is estimated at $7.5 million. The bill includes requirements for drug testing, community service and to work in West Virginia for at least two years or pay the money back.

Paul Hardesty

Senator Paul Hardesty, who had been president of the Logan County school board before he was appointed to the Senate last week, said calling tuition help for community college an entitlement is a stretch.

“I applaud your efforts on this bill. I’ve heard others say it’s an entitlement program,” said Hardesty, D-Logan.

“I cannot fathom how there’s a correlation between this bill and an entitlement. This is an investment in the youth of this state. This is a chance to change the status quo, to put poor people on the path to prosperity.”

Robert Plymale

Senator Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, urged more efforts to lace together West Virginia’s vocational track and workplace development.

“We have to have all these things working together to get where we need to be on workforce participation,” Plymale said. “This is a good first step, and I look forward to working with you on the next ones.”

Senators from both parties, plus supporters of the bill, gathered to laud it on the front stairs of the Senate chamber.

“There’s very few days when you absolutely get excited and know what you have done in this legislative body will change the face of the economy and the lives of the people this bill was intended to help,” Carmichael said to open up the celebration.

He said senators have already been working to persuade delegates about the importance of the bill.

“We don’t do anything in a vacuum, and the House is fully informed of what we’re doing,” he said. “They’re very supportive. We talk about it from an individual perspective. And until someone actually casts a vote on this, yes or no, we’ll never know.”

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