Reporter’s Notebook: Week Four at the Capitol

Here we are at the beginning of February and we’re staring down a scenario similar to this time last year, with a pay raise for teachers and school service personnel being held up by Republicans in the West Virginia Senate, with a strike eminent.

But is it really all the similar? There are several differences between this year’s education reform battle and last year’s strike over teacher pay.

First of all, public opinion last year was with the teachers and their effort for a pay increase. I’m unsure where public opinion is on Senate Bill 451, the education omnibus bill, but based on watching some of the social media posts, there is a contingent of the public that has interest in some, if not all, of the proposals in the bill.

Education savings accounts are still a relatively new phenomenon. Only six states have them, and Nevada’s program is inactive. But charter schools are nothing new. Only Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia don’t have them.

Charters are mistakenly framed as a Republican- versus-Democrat issue, but many prominent liberal/progressives have supported charter school education. Former President Bill Clinton was first to open up federal dollars for charter schools, and former President Barack Obama expanded that effort a decade later. There was even an effort by a former Democratic state senator from Kanawha County to pass a charter school bill nearly a decade ago.

I don’t know if charters are the best route for West Virginia to take. During testimony last week, it was revealed that Alabama, after creating a charter school program four years ago, only has two in the entire state, and has denied eight other charter applications. It would almost be better to do a pilot program and see what happens.

The one issue I wish we’d realize is not every student learns the same way. The U.S. adopted an education system based on the Prussian model, where you have rows of students learning the same thing at the same pace. That works for some students. It never worked for me. I would have benefited from another option and I finally got one when I spent my senior year at a Christian school.

I was able to work ahead in subjects I was good at, such as science, English and social studies. I was able to take my time in subjects I struggled with, such as math, and get individualized attention I would have never received in public school. This is not a criticism of my teachers in public school, but there just isn’t a way to help every single student the way our system is currently structured.

The goals of the senate Republican caucus with some of these proposals are noble, though poorly executed. Between allowing rumors to fly over the last few weeks, the multiple versions that floated around, the rush through the Senate Education Committee and avoiding the Senate Finance Committee to keep the bill from dying in a 9-8 vote, none of this has helped the messaging.

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The state union leaders deserve applause for keeping their heads and cautioning their members about walking out of their classrooms. Yes, they are sending ballots statewide for teachers and school service personnel to vote to give the state unions the final say over a statewide work stoppage, but this is more to keep things from getting out of control.

Union leaders will not likely admit this publicly, but they were very frustrated last year during the strike. They had a hard time trying to keep control, and in many cases their own members were not listening to their sound advice.

By getting statewide approval to call a work stoppage if needed, it helps keep things calm. Most everyone expects this bill to be changed, possibly substantially, by the House of Delegates. There are some counties, particularly in Southern West Virginia, chomping at the bit to strike. State union leaders understand that an uncoordinated work stoppage now only helps Senate Republicans make the case for why SB 451 is needed.

Keep your metaphorical powder dry.

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Speaking of the House of Delegates — yes, there is still a House of Delegates. The education omnibus is sucking the oxygen out of the room when it comes to cover other issues, but the House is doing work. The House passed the Broadband Expansion Act, the Social Security tax break for seniors and have a banking fix for the state medical marijuana program moving.

By all accounts, both Republicans and even Democrats in the House have been very pleased with the leadership of new House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay. Floor debates have been measured and respectful. Bills are moving, with amendments being worked on collaboratively between the parties. Even the controversial foster care bill debate was done well.

Compared to the term of former Republican House Speaker Tim Armstead, I’m told this year is a breath of fresh air. The one sense I got talking to both Republican and Democratic delegates regarding SB 451, which could be in their hands by the end of the day, was that they would work together on the bill.

I’d also expect some horse trading between the House and Senate. Hanshaw wants his broadband bill to pass. Carmichael wants his last-dollar-in community and technical college bill to pass. It’s clear the Senate wants everything that’s in the education omnibus, but there is simply no way it makes it through the process intact.

As the philosopher Mick Jagger once said, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you find you get what you need.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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