Senate amends education reform package

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, talks with the press after the passage of SB 451 in the Senate Monday night. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON — Remaining defiant until the end in the face of an impending teacher strike, the West Virginia Senate amended back into its education reform package controversial items the House specifically removed or decreased.

The Senate amended Senate Bill 451, the education omnibus bill, Monday evening to put back in a limited education savings account program for special needs students and increased the number of public charter schools from two to seven.

The amended bill passed 18-16 with senators Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, and Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, voting with Senate Democrats against the bill.

“The state Senate has passed a comprehensive education reform bill,” said Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson. “We can be the best in America, and I’m just so thrilled and happy and pleased that the state Senate and the good people in this Senate have moved forward with comprehensive education reform.”

“As I look at this Senate amendment, I’m struggling to find out what we’ve done for students,” said Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion. “How have we helped the at-risk children in our schools? Yeah, we made a few changes here and there we can go out and applaud and say we really made a difference. We haven’t made a difference. We haven’t addressed the issues.”

The Senate version Monday makes the public charter school program permanent with a maximum of seven schools allowed at a pace of no more than two schools per year. At least one of the schools approved would need to be for at-risk students. It also gives the Public Charter School Commission the authority to allow a charter school in school districts not meeting academic standards.

The updated ESA provision drops the number of first-come-first-serve accounts from 2,500 to 1,000. It opens ESA’s to parents of special needs students or students who are victims of harassment and bullying. It also takes the end-of-year teacher attendance bonus from $1,000 for missing no less than four days per year back to $500.

Instead of requiring law enforcement in every school in the state, the Senate amendment creates a School Safety Fund to help schools pay for security features, including school resource officers. It adds clarifications to work stoppage language, requiring that any work stoppage not affect the 180/200 day student/teacher calendar and restoring language canceling extracurricular activities during a work stoppage.

“Significant concessions have been made in this amendment to the amendment to try to get it in shape,” said state Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan. “It will confound me if the vote we’re about to have on this amendment to the amendment does not have bipartisan support. This bill has many features in it that are designed to bolster and enhance public education in West Virginia for all the students of West Virginia.”

Senate Democrats were taken by surprise by the Senate amendment to SB 451, claiming they hadn’t seen it and did not have time to review all the changes. Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said the amendment was in the Senate’s computer system an hour before 3 p.m. when the lawmakers began consideration of the amendment.

“Do you think I should vote on something I haven’t had the chance to read?” asked state Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier. “I haven’t even seen it yet…you think I should feel comfortable enough to vote for it?”

“That is obviously a consideration you have to make for yourself,” Rucker said.

“This is legislation by ambush. It’s amendment by ambush,” said state Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison. “There is no reason to push this out without 10 minutes to review.”

The Senate recessed until 6 p.m. to give the minority time to read through the amendment. Shortly before being gaveled back in, the leaders of the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, the West Virginia Education Association, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association announced a statewide strike set for this morning.

“For what provision are you striking?” Carmichael asked. “It’s unfortunate…yeah, the union leaders who fight and cling to the past may want (a strike), but I think we should all join hands and celebrate this amazing accomplishment and look forward to the progress our students will now have in our state.”

State Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, took off his Senate lapel pin and spoke in support of SB 451 as a father and a citizen.

“If we can improve the education atmosphere in our state and address this terrible opioid problem that we have here, we can move our state forward economically,” Clements said. “I would like to see us pass our version of this bill…if we do, we will be sending a clear message to our citizens, school administrators, teachers, parents, and students that we’re serious about education.”

State Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said the House version of the bill fixed many of the issues that gave Senate Democrats heartburn. He expressed his disappointment in how the Senate had handled SB 451 from the beginning.

“When I look at what happened today, how in the world could there be such disrespect, frankly, for the system,” Stollings said. “This didn’t have to happen like this. This could have been so much better if we simply did it the right way and valued education and valued this body.”

The Senate bill is expected to be scrutinized by the House this morning if it receives the message from the Senate in time for this morning’s House floor session. An attempt by some House Republicans last week to amendment SB 451 to include six charter schools and allow the Schools for the Deaf and the Blind to convert failed 59-40 with 18 Republicans voting against it. A similar attempt to restore ESAs failed by a larger margin 62-37.

If the House does not concur with the Senate amendment, the bill would move to a conference committee made up of three senators and three delegates to hammer out a compromise that both chambers can accept.

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