CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The regular legislative session has ended, and the special session on education “betterment” has begun.
Gov. Jim Justice called the special session to consider pay raises for teachers and school service personnel, along with the possibility of changes to West Virginia’s education system.
The special session started right away, but lawmakers immediately recessed to go out into their communities over the next couple of months to talk about the state’s education needs.
Many lawmakers said they were already making plans to meet with teachers, parents, students and others.
“I do like the idea of being able to engage everyone who’s going to be affected by it,” said Delegate Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha.
Graves has made arrangements already with the superintendents of the Putnam and Kanawha county school systems. She also planned to get together with representatives of private schools and religious schools, plus parents of homeschooled children.
“Maybe if we listen to people we may come up with ideas we haven’t even thought of yet,” Graves said. “Maybe that’s how we find out how this can possibly work, what compromise we can possibly find.”
Justice’s call for the special session is fairly broad: “Relating generally to improving, modifying, and making efficiencies tc the state’s public education system and employee compensation.”
What that means could be in the eye of the beholder.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael issued his own statement praising the governor for providing latitude.
“The people of West Virginia are fortunate to have a Governor who understands that the time to put our energy and our focus into making West Virginia’s school systems even better is right now,” Carmichael stated.
“His call into a special session will give all 134 members of the Legislature the time they need outside of the day-to-day pressures of the Regular Session to be in their communities meeting face to face with the people who will be most affected by these issues – parents, students, teachers, and administrators. Because the call is broad, it will enable us to look not just at previous measures we’ve considered, but also study ways to create efficiencies and eliminate obsolete provisions in the scope of West Virginia School Laws.”
West Virginia wound up needing a special session after elected leaders couldn’t agree on the circumstances for a promised teacher pay raise to be delivered.
Justice promised the pay raise for teachers and other state employees in October while surrounded by other Republican elected leaders.
A few weeks after the regular legislative session started, the Republican majority in the Senate bundled the pay raise with a variety of other educational changes, including charter schools and education savings accounts, which set aside taxpayer dollars for students moving from public schools to private education.
Teachers unions went on strike for two days at the height of legislative debate.
The House of Delegates, also with a Republican majority, wound up permanently tabling the omnibus education bill and later passing a standalone pay raise bill.
The Senate wouldn’t act on the pay raise bill, with the majority saying they’d already voted for a pay raise.
Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, hopes the special session works out differently.
“I think a lot of the opposition to Senate Bill 451 just came from misinformation,” Rucker said. “When we talk to folks about what’s in the bill and what it would do, we get almost universal agreement. I think a lot of folks did not know, did not understand and their first guttural reaction was negative.
“They didn’t like the way it was, you know, done as a surprise even though we told them this was a lot of the existing legislation we’ve tried to pass in previous years. Putting it all in one package just made a lot of opposition to it from the get-go.”
The charter schools and education savings accounts were controversial, and Rucker still supports them.
But there were other aspects of the bill that had broader support.
One was roughly $24 million that would have paid for guidance counselors, school psychologists and school nurses.
Another provision of the prior bill would have established a student population base of 1,400, even for counties that actually have fewer students than that. The base would help with funding levels.
Rucker said she is looking forward to discussing those issues. She believes agreement is possible at the end of the special session.
“I know where the Senate Republican leadership and the caucus is, and we have to see what the House is willing to do, what they are willing to accept. You know, find out what the governor would like to see too,” she said.
“That’s really how it should be, but I will tell you it just seems like the Senate is almost always leading when it comes to these issues. We just have the ability and, I believe, the courage to just be able to tackle the tough things.”
Senator Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, said the special session should be refined.
“The call is very broad. I think the governor needs to define more of the parameters of what we’ll be looking back and what we need to do,” said Plymale, a longtime Senate Education chairman.
He agreed with the need to talk to the groups who felt they were left out of earlier decisions.
“What’s been proven in this session is if you don’t have a dialogue with groups you aren’t going to be successful in getting any kind of end product,” Plymale said.
Agreement can be achieved under the right conditions, Plymale said.
“I think there has to be some guidance by the governor, but I don’t think you come in unless there’s consensus,” he said. “I think we have to get consensus. With true leadership, you’ll get consensus.”
Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, also said lawmakers can agree on changes if they take their time and listen.
“I think if we do it in a proper and structured way, if it’s not a rush job,” said Hornbuckle, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee. “We have a month, two months off, and in the intermediate time we can meet with different stakeholder groups and really get a consensus on what would be the appropriate education transformation right now.”
Hornbuckle said he’s already started making arrangements to talk with people involved with education in his community and surrounding communities.
He hopes others will do the same.
“I am cautiously optimistic. I am cautiously optimistic that they will do that but I’m hoping they will do that in good faith and make a genuine effort to get out to different folks, various folks and not just meet with one stakeholder group and then come back and let that be the end-all be all,” Hornbuckle said.
“We have to figure out how to enhance our public education first before we go down a different path.”