Teacher unions, Dems winning education debate

The biggest challenge for leaders of the state teacher unions and their supporters in the Legislature Thursday night and Friday morning was to keep from smiling. They had to show they were still unhappy with the comprehensive education reform bill (SB 451) even though it had been altered—in ways big and small—to their favor.

Senate Republicans were able to push through (18-16 vote) a bill much more aligned with conservative views of public education—charter schools, education savings accounts, paycheck protection, no pay during work stoppages, designating county school administrators as at-will employees and a non-severability clause that would have nullified the entire bill, including the pay raise, if any provision were struck down by the courts.

But by the time the House finished with its first crack at the bill Thursday afternoon, it had been scrubbed clean of all of those provisions. The only remnant was a limp noodle charter provision. It allows for just two charter schools but only if there is planetary alignment and it’s a cold day in hell.

In fairness, House Republican leaders knew the Senate version had no chance so they went with the toned down version. However, attempts by conservative Republicans to beef up charter schools and reinsert ESAs during the amendment stage Wednesday night were an epic fail, despite the GOP’s 58-41 advantage (one GOP member was absent).

Republicans committed to greater school choice wanted to make a principled stand, but strategically it seemed as though every failed attempt to insert ESAs or add more charter schools only highlighted the lack of support. In fact, a Democratic attempt to remove charter schools completely narrowly failed 45-49.

Meanwhile, the bill was amended to raise from $500 to $1,000 the year-end bonus for teachers and service workers who are absent no more than four days, and the House approved providing a law enforcement officer for every school in the state.

By one estimate the school security officer provision could cost as much as $40 million and push the total cost of the education reform measure to over $200 million—a ten percent increase in General Revenue spending for public education in West Virginia.

Teacher union leaders are still grousing about the charter school provision. Perhaps they have to, at least publicly, because some of their members go apoplectic over school choice. But these union leaders know the legislative process, and surely they understand that what teachers and public schools stand to gain dramatically outweighs any downside for them.

Of course the bill still has a long way to go, and the next stop is back in the Senate where it is likely Republicans will try to reinsert ESAs and expand charter schools. ESAs may just become a bargaining chip since there’s no way the House will agree to them. However, expanding the charter school provision should be on the table.

Yes, the public hearings were dominated by teachers who believe charter schools will undermine traditional public schools. However, there were also a number of West Virginians who spoke in favor of more school choice. Their voices may not have been the loudest, but they were committed and passionate. They also deserve to be heard.

The Senate should toughen up the school choice option allowing for at least five or six (or maybe more) charter schools so that, after a few years, education leaders can have data on how they are performing.

Union leaders and sympathetic lawmakers may not like adding in more charter schools, but they know just about everything else in this bill is a net gain for teachers and public education. They should compromise on charters, even if they have to do it quietly to keep the most radical elements of their unions from running over them with a school bus (figuratively speaking).

And House Republicans who have gone weak-kneed over charters should remember that they are in the majority.




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