CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The minority leader of the House of Delegates isn’t yet sure whether a special session focusing on changes to West Virginia’s education system will be a snap or a slog.
“I’ll be honest. I don’t know what to make of things,” Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said in a telephone interview.
He referred to continued statements by leaders in the state Senate, including President Mitch Carmichael, favoring charter schools and education savings accounts. Those generated controversy as they were considered during the regular session.
“You have Mitch Carmichael going out on social media, very publicly continuing to push charter schools and ESAs,” Miley said. “And it sounds like we might just see a second rendition of SB 451 containing all the parts of it. I don’t know if he is just playing his fiddle on social media or if he is really meaning that.
“If that’s the case, we’ll have to see if there are enough votes in the House to pass what he and his colleagues want.”
Carmichael and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw were meeting on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the timing of the special session and what might be on the agenda.
The Legislature is, technically, already in a special session. Lawmakers gaveled into it on the last night of the regular session and then immediately recessed.
Over the past weeks, legislators have been participating in forums on education all over the state. Many of those were coordinated by the state Department of Education, but lawmakers also had some on their own.
A special session could include financial support for more psychologists and school counselors. It also could include changes to the state school aid formula and to some regulations governing school systems.
Some of those were widely accepted aspects of the omnibus education bill that was considered in the regular session.
“If we just stick to the parts that were good, I think we’ll be able to pass a very good comprehensive education bill,” Miley said.
When the omnibus education bill was considered, the most contentious issues were charter schools and education savings accounts, which would set aside taxpayer dollars for students leaving public schools for private education.
Since the regular session ended, Republican leaders in the Senate have continued to state support for those policies.
“We’re going to be very firm on pursuing those options,” Carmichael commented last week to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “Obviously, we’ll compromise as we do in any legislative environment.”
Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair last month told MetroNews’ WEPM he wouldn’t support a long-promised teacher payraise without other changes.
“The money is there, but until we get through the special session on education reform, I can tell you there’s 18 senators that we’re not willing to do any pay raise until we get education reform, or betterment is the term being used by the governor,” Blair said.
During a presentation last month, Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker advocated for continued consideration of the entire omnibus education bill.
“I don’t want to back down on any of those provisions,” Rucker said in the Parkersburg News and Sentinel. “I’m sure they’re all going to be back on the table.”
Responding to a question this week in Brooke County, Gov. Jim Justice said he is comfortable trying a few charter schools in West Virginia but remains skeptical of education savings accounts.
He also referenced “paycheck protection,” which would have required education union members to annually authorize dues being deducted from their wages.
“I absolutely believe that the education savings accounts and the paycheck protection, things like that, were just stuff that made people mad,” Justice said. “Whether there’s merit or not merit, I’m not going to debate that. It just made people mad.
“What we need to do, though — I am an absolute advocate of some form of charter schools on a pilot basis. If we had two or three pilot charter schools, I think there is nothing wrong with that.”
Miley said policies like charter schools and education savings accounts may be considered, but they also might take additional time.
Legislative leaders have talked about scheduling the special session when they would have regularly-scheduled interim meetings anyway, to cut down on the additional expense of about $35,000 a day.
“Do they really think those issues will pass in a matter of a day or two come May or whenever the special session is held?” Miley said.
“Even if they have the votes to pass what the Senate wants they should not expect that to be done quickly. I hope they’re bringing their suitcases to stay for multiple days if they try that approach.”