Efforts to strip West Virginia education bill of controversy fail

CHARLESTON — Attempts by Democrats in the West Virginia Senate to amend the Republican’s massive education reform package were thwarted Friday during a lengthy floor session.

The Senate rejected six amendments proposed by Senate Democrats to Senate Bill 451, the education omnibus bill, during five hours of debate into early Friday evening. Democrats attempted to remove several of the provisions found controversial by the caucus, as well as teachers’ unions.

SB 451 is an attempt by Senate Republicans to reform West Virginia’s education system. It includes provisions they say are meant to give teachers and staff more pay and more flexibility, gives counties access to more funding and freedom in their hiring practices, and give parents and students more educational options outside the traditional public school system.

But Democrats tried to amend out several key components of the bill, including public charter schools, education savings accounts, and a nonseverability clause that would cause the whole bill to be invalid if any part of it is successfully challenged in court.

“This is a virtually unprecedented provision in state code,” said state Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, speaking to his amendment to remove the nonseverability clause. “Just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should do it. To me, if you’re supportive of a lot of provisions in this bill, there is no reason to throw the entire thing away just because one thing might be challenged.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, took credit for developing the clause, which he said is meant to function as a shield to discourage the judiciary from stepping in and making education policy.

“I don’t believe it is mean-spirited and it’s not intended to be,” Trump said. “One of the problems, in my opinion, is we’ve had excessive judicial intervention…that is the reason, for me anyway, it makes good sense to put a nonseverability clause in this bill as a shield and a message to some activist judge.”

An amendment from state Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, tried to strip the public charter school language from the bill. Plymale, a former chairman of the Senate Education Committee prior to the Republicans gaining the majority in 2014, said the plan needs more time for study and discussion.

“These needs need to be developed by West Virginians in a collaborative setting with stakeholders in the education community, citizens, and business,” Plymale said. “This needs to be done, if it is done, in a very collaborative model, not to be blown through in three or four weeks of the session.”

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said this is not the first time a charter school bill has come before the body.

“There is a lot in the charter school bill that we put thoughtful consideration and sought input in,” Rucker said. “I know there are senators here who previously tried to pass a charter school law…but it did not take into consideration the mistakes of other states. This law actually does.”

An unsuccessful amendment from state Sen. Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, would have striped the bill of language creating an education savings account program. The ESA provision would open up 2,500 accounts for parents, who would receive a debit card with 75 percent of the state per-pupil expenditure annually for use for educational expenses, such as private or home schooling.

“This ESA program will cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, but do little to improve educational outcomes,” Ihlenfeld said. “Research tells us these programs are ineffective at providing more options for lower-income students.”

A successful amendment from Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, amended the ESA section to require that families who apply to the program have a household income less than $150,000 per year to qualify for one of the 2,500 first-come-first-serve accounts.

“I was very fortunate enough to, for a period of time, place our kids into private school,” Takubo said. “We were able to afford that, but there were a great many friends of mine who voiced that they would have liked to do that, but they had financial means that prevented that.”

The six amendments brought by Senate Democrats — including one that would have striped everything out of the bill except for the 5 percent pay raise for teachers and school service personnel — failed 18-16. Two Senate Republicans — senators Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, and Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur — voted for all six of the failed amendments.

SB 451 will up for passage on Monday.