Big day in House of Delegates for omnibus education bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The omnibus education bill is heading for an omnibus day.

Action at the state Capitol begins at 8 a.m. Wednesday with a public hearing. A House of Delegates floor session to consider a variety of legislation, including the omnibus bill, is set for 11 a.m.

Multiple amendments will be considered for the omnibus education bill, which will also be up on a passage vote.

Sean Hornbuckle

“Huge day,” said Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, the lead Democrat on the House Education Committee.

“There’s going to be a litany of amendments, so this will not be the final product, I don’t think. I am confident saying there will be some from both sides.”

Like previous versions, the bill includes a variety of proposed changes to the education system, including pay raises, charter schools, increased support personnel for schools, open enrollment, incentives to fill in-demand positions and financial support for small or struggling counties.

But the focus has been on a provision of the bill allowing charter schools in West Virginia.

“The people of West Virginia do not want charters, and there are also some things in there that give them pause,” Hornbuckle said.

The version the House has been considering this week has had a cap of 10 charter schools. But there was talk in the Capitol hallways of discussions that could change that number, possibly to a sliding scale of a few new charter schools per year.

Paul Espinosa

Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, entered a proposed amendment on Tuesday afternoon that would initially establish three pilot charter schools until 2023. After that, every three years, there could be three more.

Espinosa, who has been the point man on the omnibus bill during the special session, had earlier indicated the cap of 10 could change.

“I think it’s really difficult to say,” Espinosa said after a Tuesday afternoon floor session.

“I sense that there is support for the legislation with that 10 cap in there, but we’re continuing our discussions with the Senate, continuing our discussions with the governor, and we’re certainly open to whatever amendments might be made to the legislation, particularly if we’re able to garner support from the Senate and the governor.”

Delegates from both parties met in private caucus on Tuesday afternoon. There was a lot of talk at the Capitol that the Governor’s Office was involved with those talks as well.

Espinosa acknowledged as much when reporters asked about communication with Senate leadership.

“We’re continuing that process, frankly, as we speak,” Espinosa said, “just doing the best we can to make the legislation acceptable to the Senate. We’ve also been in contact with the Governor’s Office and with the governor himself, again trying to exhaust all opportunities to have the Senate, the governor and the House be able to support this comprehensive legislation.

“I think we’re making progress. Again, we’re still continuing those discussions. I think they’ll probably continue through the afternoon, possibly this evening, and I’m optimistic that we will be able to enact meaningful education reform.”

Mitch Carmichael

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, took issue with changes that have been under consideration in the House, including removing an appeal process for denials of charter applications and a provision that would have codified that it’s illegal for teachers to strike against the state.

“There’s people that just don’t have the fortitude to get these things done,” Carmichael said Tuesday on “580 Live.”

“Some decisions are not easy, and progress results from struggle and doing the right thing. And when you stick to doing the right thing on principle you always, always, whether you win or lose, you can sleep at night.”

Mark Dean

Delegate Mark Dean, R-Mingo, was sponsoring five amendments to the omnibus bill.

Dean is the vice chairman of the House Education Committee. He is also principal of Gilbert PreK-8.

Most of his amendments deal with charter schools.

One would wipe out the provision entirely. (“I’m sure that doesn’t have a whole lot of support.”) Another would make it so county boards can’t approve a charter school until all board seats have been on the ballot for re-election. Another would establish county referendums on charter schools.

Dean wasn’t ready to guess what will happen with the omnibus bill on Wednesday.

“I honestly don’t know. Because it’s so far from a finished product I hate to say how people are going to vote right now,” he said. “As it stands right now I can’t support it, but there could be some changes made that I might be able to.”

Teachers unions have rallied at the Capitol against the omnibus bill, taking issue with its format and, especially, with the charter schools provision. They have packed the galleries to watch House floor sessions.

The debate has divided along partisan lines, with Democrats saying they can’t support the bill and Republican leaders acknowledging that their own caucus will have to be the driving force if the bill passes.

“Our members in our caucus, which we’ll unfortunately have to rely on in order to enact this legislation, they felt that providing a very modest amount of school choice was certainly something they were willing to support,” Espinosa said.

No Democrats are likely to vote for the bill, Hornbuckle said.

“As far as I know as it is currently written there will be no Democrats from our caucus in support,” Hornbuckle said.

Asked what he thinks will happen, Hornbuckle responded, “I’ll predict no passage.”

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