Big education bill inspires long day of Senate debate

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Senators spent hours debating a controversial, broad-ranging education bill.

Most of the debate focused on opening the way for charter schools, allowing for a certain number of vouchers that people could use for private school and giving county boards greater leeway in raising property tax levies.

Senators began their discussion at 11 a.m. Wednesday and finished at 8:30 p.m.

There was not yet a vote.

Debate over the education bill is expected to reconvene at mid-morning Thursday.

And that won’t be the last of the argument.

This round of discussion took place during a rare Committee of the Whole, which was all senators acting as one committee. After this, the 145-page education bill would still need to go through three readings by the full Senate, too.

Senators spent hours Wednesday asking questions of staff counsel. That was followed by an evening session of presentations by educational experts.

Much of the back-and-forth boiled down to a vision of whether pumping public dollars into semi-private schools will improve education in West Virginia or drain school resources that are stretched thin already.

“The purpose of our public schools is to give every child a great education, and that is exactly what charter schools can do,” said Emily Schultz of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Terry George, superintendent of Fayette County schools, told lawmakers charter schools and Educational Savings Accounts would sap resources from local schools.

“This bill is going to lead to probably one of the largest consolidation efforts this state has ever experienced,” George said.

The bill touches on a variety of education issues, starting with pay raises for teachers.

The bill would also let teachers bank personal days for retirement credit. It would give counties greater latitude in paying some teachers more for in-demand expertise.

The bill would require teachers to sign off annually on union dues. It stipulates that if there’s a work stoppage that closes schools, those involved would not be paid.

It’s all tied together with a non-severability clause, saying that if any part of the bill is struck down then it would all be void.

Senator Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, questioned how frequently such a clause appears in legislation.

“What’s the educational purpose of this clause? Is there any value to it that’s going to advance education?” he asked. “To me, it’s mean spirited.”

A provision that would have raised maximum class sizes from 25 to 28 — or even 31 — was removed from the bill prior to the latest version’s introduction.

The full Senate serving as one committee is rarely seen.

Earlier this week, the Senate majority voted to bypass the Senate Finance Committee and instead let the whole membership consider the education bill.

Two Republican members of the Finance Committee — senators Kenny Mann and Bill Hamilton — said they’re opposed to the omnibus education bill, putting its passage there in doubt.

Republicans contended the Committee of the Whole isn’t a way to circumvent the usual system. Instead, they said, it’s a way to allow all senators to hear about the important bill at the same time, whether they’re on that committee or not.

All of this happened the same day the state Board of Education, during its own long emergency meeting, issued a series of resolutions about the big education bill.

The state school board said each aspect of the big bill should be separated and considered on its own merits.

School board members and Superintendent Steve Paine expressed frustration that they hadn’t been consulted about the various changes to education policy.

“I’ve been stewing about this. And I’ve been stewing about this a long time. I respect the Legislature, and I respect the legislative process,” Paine said. “I would ask that they reciprocate and respect the expertise at the Board and the Department of Education.”

Gov. Jim Justice, speaking on MetroNews’ “Talkline” a day after he came out against the bundled bill, said this fight could have been avoided.

Justice again said the pay raises that he promised in October should be running as a single bill.

“I would just say for crying out loud, this was such a simple, simple thing and what we’ve done is created divide. We should never have gone down this path. Now, we can make it better. There’s no question we can make it better,” he said.

The governor said the Republican majority in the Senate has picked an unnecessary fight.

“The Republicans, they’re not the Evil Witch of the West. They’re trying to make things better,” Justice said. “But there are certain things that are not buttons that we don’t need to take on at this time.”

Justice said more communication would have gone a long way.

“Somebody should have come to me and said ‘Governor, how do you feel about this?’” He said he was left out “to some degree, but I’m not going to whine about that.”

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