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W.Va. lawmakers look toward education ‘betterment’ session

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Everybody has a view on education “betterment.”

Leadership in the state Senate is talking about a comprehensive “Student Success Act.”

The House of Delegates is breaking into four special committees to consider dozens of separate bills.

So that leaves lots of room for individual legislators to describe what they would like to see. Whether lawmakers can agree will be the big trick.

House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, has been suggesting a charter schools idea that would allow each county school board to determine what it wants to do.

Summers said she has asked for a bill to be drafted to reflect the concept.

“End of story. If Taylor County board of education doesn’t want a charter school — which they have told me, all five board members that they do not — then Taylor County will not have charter schools in their county,” Summers said on “Talk of the Town” on WAJR.

“If Mon County board of education wants to approve a charter and be the authorizer for that charter school, they can have it. This way we’re not starting ‘Oh, we can only have two. We can only have five.’ It’s strictly local control if that county wants to do that.”

There’s been a lot of buildup for the special session on education.

Gov. Jim Justice and Republican leaders stood together last October to promise a pay raise for educators. During the regular session, the Senate majority bundled the pay raise with a variety of education policies, including some that proved controversial.

The House of Delegates amended the omnibus education bill, the Senate amended it back, the House tabled it, and the governor proposed a special session on education “betterment.”

Now lawmakers are aiming for June.

“It’ll either pass or it won’t, and it’ll be over,” Summers said. “We’ll either gain 51 votes and a majority in the House and a majority in the Senate and we’ll get something across the finish line to the governor, or we won’t. And that’s just how the process works.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, said there might be some individual education bills presented in the Senate, but he thinks most policy proposals will be together in one bill.

The Senate majority released a draft of its one big education bill on Friday afternoon.

“We’ll send that over and certainly see what the House does and work with that as well,” Takubo said on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

“If you break things apart and you pass some but not others, it makes the ones you pass fall apart. So I think the Senate is agreeable to break the more controversial pieces out and let those run separately, let them pass-fail on their own merit. But most of this will go together.”

Takubo suggested a bill focusing on education savings accounts might run on its own. Those set aside taxpayer dollars for students leaving public school and opting for private schooling.

“There is probably the most confusion about ESAs,” he said. “I think it gives the most flexibility for a lot of students.”

Rollan Roberts

A draft of a comprehensive education bill will help people assess what might pass during the upcoming session, said Senator Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh.

“This is not 451, but it is in the same vein as Senate Bill 451,” Roberts said on “Radio Roundtable” on WJLS-AM, referring to the omnibus bill considered during the regular session.

“It’s 139 pages. So it is involved. Does it have all of the elements of 451. The answer is, not it does not. Does it have some new elements that came out during the teacher forum? Yes it does.”

Roberts believes the big bill will treat some of the more controversial education policy issues differently than the prior bill did.

“Will the bill include charter schools? That’s the big question. I wish I had a drumroll right now. The answer is yes and no,” he said.

Charter schools could be handled much as Summers described, “with county boards opting in and without a central charter school board.

“One of the things that drew a lot of ire from people was this independent board that would be running charter schools. Put in there that the individual counties would have say-so,” he said. “The individual counties, they can make it a charter school if they want.”

Education savings accounts won’t be in the big bill, Roberts suggested.

“The education savings accounts will not be in this draft,” he said. “It was just kind of a no-win situation.”

But there could be a separate bill that structures education savings accounts as a refundable tax credit.

The challenge, Roberts said, will be determining what can pass among the 100 members of the House of Delegates.

“Nobody can predict what’s going to happen there,” Roberts said. “Hopefully there will be enough support in the House to get the governor to sign the bill.”

There are already 10 individual education bills submitted in the House and seven in the Senate.

Delegates have said they want to consider individual bills, rather than a single big one.

“I think there’s a lot that we need to do and that we can do and, frankly, that there’s consensus to do among both parties,” said Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, speaking on “Talk of the Town” on WAJR.

“To me, the challenge is that there’s a narrow agenda related to charter schools and education savings accounts that some of the leadership has and that they’re holding the rest of the progress hostage to those two issues. I think there’s some room for compromise, but meanwhile we’re not getting anything done.”

Hansen expressed support for a bill that passed the House of Delegates during the regular session. He was concerned by the two charter schools authorized by the bill, but supported the rest.

Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, expects his assignment on Select Committee B is likely to include a focus on innovation zones, which allow existing schools to apply for a greater degree of flexibility.

“We’ve seen success stories at Buffalo High School and certain places where Innovation Zones have really worked, so I want to jumpstart those and bring some opportunity across the state where people can be innovative, they can be different, they can teach, have a little flexibility in the classroom,” Skaff told 580 WCHS.

Delegate Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha, is also on Special Committee B.

“I’ve always been a strong supporter of small groups. I’m glad we’re dividing up,” Byrd told 580 WCHS.

“I hope the 25 people on each committee can get together and work through these issues and allow people to come in and speak their opinions. I want it to be an open dialogue.”

Byrd said he hopes the special session on “betterment” can be focused and wrap up within a few days.

“I’m hoping we get in there, we don’t waste a lot of taxpayer money, it’s organized, spend three days in there and get something out by the end of the week,” Byrd said.

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