W.Va. House passes big education bill with significant changes

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The House of Delegates passed an omnibus education bill that’s significantly different from when it came over from the Senate.

The bill passed 71-29 early Thursday afternoon, after more than an hour of debate.

That sets up a showdown with the Senate over the differences in the bill. That could take place in conference committee as soon as next week.

The 125-page bill would make a variety of changes to West Virginia’s school system. It would bundle long-promised pay raises with two possible charter schools, a change to authority over local school levies, a bonus for unused personal days and more.

Daryl Cowles

Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, compared the many components of the omnibus bill to a big pot of chili.

“There are some good things in the ingredients that went into the pot of chili,” said Cowles, R-Morgan. “I would suggest that we get ourselves a bowl and pass the bill.”

Another delegate, Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, had a very different comparison.

Shawn Fluharty

“You took a pile of garbage, and it doesn’t smell so bad any more,” Fluharty said. “I’ll give you credit for that.”

What changed in the bill?

The bill changed in several key ways during almost two weeks of consideration in the House.

A non-severability clause was removed right away. That would have meant the whole bill, including the teacher pay raise would have been struck down if any element were successfully challenged in court.

A ‘paycheck protection’ provision was removed too. The would have mandated annual approval for teachers union members to have their dues withheld from paychecks. Unions viewed it as an anti-organized labor provision.

The Senate’s version allowed charter schools. That’s still in the bill, but barely. House Education at first capped the charters at six. Now there’s a pilot program for two.

Joe Canestraro

Delegate Joe Canestraro, D-Marshall, doesn’t like the bill’s allowance for two charter schools.

“I know of no one who would take two cockroaches home with them and not think they’re going to breed,” Canestraro said.

A provision establishing educational savings accounts was removed by delegates in decisive votes. Those would have provided money for private educational expenses for students leaving public school.

Tom Bibby

Delegates who favor more options for students said they were disappointed but would vote for the bill.

“I believe there is some choice,” said Delegate Tom Bibby, R-Berkeley. “Little was left standing. We did take pretty much of a meat cleaver to it.”

The House Education committee also voted to remove an entire section detailing the consequences of a work stoppage. Originally, the bill specified withholding pay if a work stoppage closed schools. Extracurricular activities would have been canceled.

The Education Committee altered a section that would have removed seniority as the main factor in job retention. Now seniority is linked to evaluations in determining the order of layoffs.

An amendment passed by the Education Committee would provide money for innovation zones, which are already in West Virginia law but without funding.

During amendments on the floor, delegates approved a proposal to boost police protection in schools. Delegates believe this would cost about $40 million, although no study was done.

Linda Longstreth

Delegate Linda Longstreth, D-Marion, said that was a major factor causing her to switch her position and support the bill.

“I will not deny the students the protection they so need,” Longstreth said.

Another amendment adopted on the floor boosted a bonus for teachers who use four personal days or fewer during the school year. The bonus was $500 but was bumped to $1,000.

What’s the reaction?

On Thursday morning, the state Board of Education voted unanimously to endorse the House’s version of the omnibus education bill after previously going on record as opposing specific provisions in the Senate bill.

Dave Perry

State board President Dave Perry said such an endorsement is appropriate.

“Especially based on what (House) Speaker Hanshaw’s done and (House Education) Chair Hamrick, in terms of an open and deliberate discussion around his bill,” Perry said prior to the vote.

“It’s just gratifying to see the number of issues as part of this list that came from this Board.”

The leaders of two teachers unions described the bill as a big improvement over its starting point.

“This bill is much better,” said Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia. “It is very palatable.”

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said the bill still has a long way to go, referencing the likelihood of conference committee.

“You have to have a line in the sand, what you’re going to accept,” Lee said. “I think the votes last night made it clear the House is not willing to accept ESAs. They’re not willing to accept the charter school commission.

“I think that has to be a bottom line stance for the House, and they have to stay strong when it goes to conference committee.”

Americans for Prosperity-West Virginia, one of the groups that has been pushing for the education savings accounts, said it would not support the bill without that provision.

Jason Huffman

“We will not support a version of SB 451 that does not restore vital educational freedom provisions,” stated Jason Huffman, state director for the organization.

“Divisive and inaccurate rhetoric has not, and will not, deter our belief that every child in West Virginia deserves access to a quality education, regardless of income or zip code. The version of SB 451 passed by the House does not provide educational freedom to each child.”

What happens next?

The bill passes to the Senate, where it may be accepted, rejected or, one more time, amended.

“We’re evaluating whether to try to amend it or simply go to conference with it,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said on “Talkline.”

If there’s a conference committee to hammer out a compromise version of the bill, it would go back to the House and the Senate for votes.

Carmichael said there’s a groundswell of support for options such as charter schools or education savings accounts.

“The fact is that they’re going to pass an education reform bill today that does include charter schools. We’ll try to strengthen that,” Carmichael said prior to the House floor session. “The good news is that education reform is on path.”

Jason Barrett

Several delegates urged the House to maintain the bill as it is once conference committee commences.

“One of my friends mentioned this could be bait. Well, it could be,” said Delegate Jason Barrett, D-Berkeley, who voted for the bill. “But I have confidence in this House that we’re going to hold our position.”

Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, also voted for the bill, although he was critical just a few days ago. “I think it’s a good bill,” he said.

Isaac Sponaugle

But Sponaugle said if conference committee results in more charter schools in the bill, it will lose his support.

“I’m going to be a no, and I’m going to be loud about it,” he said. “I’m going to trust the Speaker to hold the House’s position.”

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said he will be talking with Carmichael about the House’s level of support on the various aspects of the bill.

“We’ll be meeting with them, I’m sure, a lot over the next few days as they figure out what they’ll be doing with the bill,” Hanshaw said.

Hanshaw said the many votes on amendments — and then the bill itself — gave him a greater sense of what the House is willing to accept. He said those conversations will continue too.

“We will be working on that over the course of the next few days to figure out what parts of this big bill actually demand the most concern among our members,” he said.

“And when I said ‘our members’ I mean the members of the House because, as you saw, the various pieces of this bill have bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition. So there’s legitimate questions now about how many members are where on which issues.”

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