So, the State Senate has now passed an omnibus education reform bill. The vote was 18-15 with one member absent. All 13 Democratic Senators present and two Republicans voted against the Student Success Act. The bill now goes to the House, where it faces an uncertain future.
Stop me if you’ve heard all this before.
The Legislature is now on a path like the regular session earlier this year—comprehensive bill passes the Senate with no bi-partisan support. The House Republican caucus could not hold together during the regular session, despite its 59-41 advantage, and Senate Bill 451 collapsed.
Why would things be any different during this special session?
The answer is they probably won’t, unless there is a significant political shift.
The Student Success Act contains many good things for public education—a pay raise, millions more dollars for student support services, subsidies for smaller counties with declining student populations, a beefed up scholarship program for students who want to become teachers, supplemental pay for hard-to-fill teaching positions.
But none of these and other improvements are enough to overcome the teacher unions’ objections to the possibility of charter schools, changes in criteria for reductions in force (layoffs) and specifying in state law that teachers who strike will not be paid and could be fired.
Governor Jim Justice, who has often said he wants to make education the centerpiece of his administration, has been only a bit player. Yes, he met with Senate Republicans and Democrats separately Sunday, but lawmakers of both parties came away with a shoulder shrug.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Craig Blair told the Gazette-Mail, “I’m puzzled as to why he was even there. It was unnecessary. I don’t know why he’s here, period.” That from a Republican legislative leader about his Republican Governor!
Justice didn’t help when he publicly dismissed the Legislature’s efforts as pointless because of the direction it was headed. It could be argued he was right, since it appears the outcome may be the same as it was during the regular session—a crash-and-burn bill.
However, the Governor is the one who called the special session. He specifically dispatched lawmakers back home at the conclusion of the regular session with orders to return later and try again.
Colin Powell said, “Leadership is solving problems,” and, make no mistake, we have a problems, and big ones. We have a public education system that is producing outcomes below expectations. We have teachers who are underpaid, angry and worn out. We have too many students who come from horribly broken and dysfunctional homes.
This is the time when leaders lead, when someone with the authority, political will and the skill set to craft agreement among disparate stakeholders refuses to let critical legislation become a flaming trash heap.