West Virginia House of Delegates sends education reform package back to Senate

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia House of Delegates passed a shrunk-down education reform package Thursday, sending the bill back to the Senate and a likely conference committee to iron out differences.

The House passed Senate Bill 451, the education omnibus bill, 71-29 during its Thursday floor session with 14 Democratic members voting with the Republican majority. Three Republican delegates voted against the bill: Jim Butler, R-Mason, Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, and Tony Paynter, R-Wyoming.

Thursday marked three weeks from when SB 451 was first introduced in the Senate Education Committee. The bill has been watered down from the version the Senate sent over to the House nearly two weeks ago.

“Every member has had the ability to add input on this piece of legislation,” said House Education Committee Chairman Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison. “I think where we are now, we have a bill that the majority of this House can support.”

Likening the bill to a pot of chili and the bill’s provisions to ingredients, House Speaker Pro Tempore Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, said all the combined provisions make for a good bill.

“There are some good things in the ingredients that went into the pot of chili,” Cowles said. “I would suggest we get ourselves a bowl and pass the bill.”

During the bill’s process through amendment stage Wednesday and the House’s Education and Finance committees, lawmakers removed several controversial provisions. Education savings accounts, sent over by the Senate, were stripped out of the bill. The House scaled back the public charter school pilot program from the six included in the Senate version to a two-school pilot exclusively for low-performing elementary schools after parent and staff agree and the school board approves the charter.

Delegate Chad Thompson, D-Randolph, said he couldn’t vote for the bill as long as it contained any charter school provisions.

“I will not lie and say there’s not a lot of good in this bill, because there is,” said Thompson, a public school teacher. “However, the teachers of this state, the service personnel of this state, have overwhelmingly said we do not want charter schools. Do not try to bribe us. We don’t want it.”

The House also removed provisions that teachers’ unions called punitive, including provisions to dock teacher pay and extracurricular activities during a work stoppage, a paycheck protection clause that would have required annual union approval to collect dues from employee paychecks, and a nonseverability clause that would have stricken the entire omnibus bill if any portion was successfully challenged in court.

Even with those provisions stripped from the bill, Delegate Joe Canestraro, D-Marshall, asked if it was still palatable.

“From the teachers I hear from back home, they don’t want any charter school whatsoever in this bill,” Canestraro said. “That’s not palatable for my teachers back home and I can’t blame them. I know of no one who wants to take two cockroaches home with them and not think that they’re not going to breed.”

Items in the House version of the bill include a 5 percent pay raise for teachers and school service personnel, a $2,000 bonus for certified math teachers and greater flexibility for county school boards to pay more to teachers of high-need subjects and incentives to teach in rural areas. It also includes a $250 tax credit for teachers and staff for educational expenses and a $1,000 end-of-year bonus for school staff who miss less than four days during the school year. Another provision would put a law enforcement officer in every school in the state.

The bill includes $24 million for more student support personnel and requirements for school counselors to spend 80 percent of the time working with students with academic, social and emotional needs. It funds counties at a minimum of 1,400 students even if the county has fewer students. It allows county school boards to raise their regular levy rates but only with approval by voters in a general election.

Several Democratic members spoke in favor of the bill. While they were not happy with everything in the bill, they saw it as a vast improvement from the Senate version.

“We have done some really good work on this bill in the last week-and-a half,” said Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson. “We have taken a bill that came to us from the Senate as an unwieldy monstrosity and we have turned it into a workable piece of legislation.”

“I’m willing to give it a chance,” said Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton. “I’m going to put my faith in the speaker (Roger Hanshaw) to hold the House’s position in conference and try to put together a strong comprehensive bill that we can pass.”

According to House Finance Committee Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, the approximate price tag of SB 451 comes to nearly $130 million. When teacher/staff pay raises already accounted for in Gov. Jim Justice’s proposed fiscal year 2020 budget are factored in, the cost is $202 million.

The bill will go back across the hall to the Senate, which will have to decide whether to accept the changes made by the House, amend it further, or reject the House version. House leaders expect rejection, which will then require a conference committee make changes to the bill.

“I have confidence in this house that we’re going to hold our position,” said Delegate Jason Barrett, D-Berkeley. “If the Senate sends us back another Christmas tree with a bunch of ugly, we’re going to shut it down. I’m going to vote in favor of this bill because it does great things for public education.”

“I hope we can put together bipartisan support that will send a clear message to the Senate that we do want true reform,” said Delegate David Kelly, R-Tyler. “We do want to see something good come out of this to help our teachers, but most of all to help our students.”