West Virginia Senate unveils education reform package

Photo courtesy of WV Legislative Photography Hank Hager, counsel for the Senate Education Committee, walks lawmakers through the 139-page education omnibus bill.

CHARLESTON — Republicans in the West Virginia Senate introduced an education package that gives teachers many of the things they’ve been seeking but ties those things to items Republicans and education reform advocates have long wanted.

The Senate Education Committee looked at a draft of an originating bill Thursday that some are calling the education omnibus bill. Rumors of the bill’s introduction have swirled all week, with teachers’ union groups sending letters to lawmakers Tuesday demanding they oppose the legislation even before it was seen.

“This is a vision that’s been worked on with input from many,” said Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson. “We have been grateful to get information, ideas, and suggestions from folks at the county superintendent level. Even our school board and (Higher Education Policy Commission).”

Two groups who said they were not consulted during the crafting of the bill were the West Virginia Education Association and the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

“From what Senator Rucker said, a lot of people have been involved in planning this,” said AFT-WV President Fred Alpert. “They didn’t talk to my union.”

Rucker said Thursday’s meeting was to give committee members an overview of the bill.

“This is a big bill,” Rucker said. “We’re going to give the committee plenty of time to digest it and look over it overnight.”

The education omnibus bill would give a 5 percent average pay raise for teachers and school service personnel. It would also give teachers a month of free health insurance through the Public Employees Insurance Agency once they retire for every 10 days of sick leave they don’t use.

The legislation provides incentives for teachers to enter the mathematics field, including an annual salary increment for math teachers. The bill would give flexibility for counties to do pay differentials based on the critical teacher positions that need filled in each county.

However, the education omnibus bill contains items that the teachers’ union do not like. It would also require teachers’ unions to obtain annual permission before deducting dues from a teacher’s paycheck. It would also dock teachers’ pay during a work stoppage, like what occurred in February 2018 when teachers in all 55 counties went on strike for 14 days.

The bill also creates the first public charter school system in the state. West Virginia is one of six states that do not have charter school legislation. Another proposal includes education savings accounts, which would give parents — in the form of a debit card — the ability to use some of their tax dollars for educational services, such as private school, individual tutoring, or other services.

Democratic members of the Senate Education Committee were given a draft copy of the bill Thursday morning and an updated version electronically before the committee meeting. But the version read to committee members was also different than what the senators were looking at. The committee was told to expect another draft with technical changes for today’s meeting.

“It seems to me at this point in time we have three versions in front of us,” said state Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier. “I got a bill a few hours ago that was 140-some pages, then I got a different version that was 130-some pages. This is, as you have said rightly, a comprehensive bill and I’m trying to sort through it, and it is especially difficult if we have different version floating around.”

Officials with both teachers’ unions walked away from the meeting confused about the details of the bill, but WVEA President Dale Lee said the comprehensive education reform package would do more harm than good.

“They’re trying to take the governor’s pay raise and PEIA proposal and say ‘this is an all-or-nothing, take it or leave it,'” Lee said. “If you want the good, we’re going to throw the bad at you. We’re going to hurt public education for a small pittance of a pay raise.”

On the other hand, education reform advocates are excited about some of the proposals in the bill. Jason Huffman, state director for the conservative Americans for Prosperity, said seven states have education savings accounts.

“This is something we’ve been talking about for years,” Huffman said. “It’s a new way to educate our children and meet their unique needs.”

The committee will meet again today at 1 p.m. to discuss the bill.

“I’m hoping through the committee process that we can make this bill the best that it can be because we all care about the same thing,” Rucker said. “We want to help our students, we want to improve outcomes, we want to empower the counties to be able to do their jobs and those who are in the field and should know best. That is the goal of this comprehensive education reform.”

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