Special session must be done right

Public school shutdowns in 2018 and earlier this year were masterful displays of strategy and tactics by the three unions representing many West Virginia public school employees, as I’ve written previously. The 2018 effort garnered national attention and served as a template for unions in some other states.

But give Republicans in the West Virginia Legislature some credit for developing a good game plan, too.

When lawmakers discussed public education during their 60-day regular session in 2018, they were placed over a barrel by the unions. Shutting schools down for nine days got the unions what they wanted — a 5 percent pay raise and a pledge to improve the financial situation at the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

So, when union leaders became upset over the so-called “omnibus education bill” earlier this year, the decision was made to show Gov. Jim Justice and legislators who’s boss. A two-day shutdown was all it took to kill the bill.

But the whole thing, not just the few provisions to which the unions objected, was shelved. Then, Justice announced he would call legislators back into a special session on “education betterment.” That proclamation was issued on March 7.

Two months have passed and no schedule for the special session has been revealed. For a time, it was assumed it would occur this month. But neither Justice nor legislative leaders seem in any hurry. In fact, House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, D-Clay, was asked about it last week.

He was questioned in the context of the state Department of Education releasing a report on public forums held throughout the state to discuss school improvement.

“Some of the things that came out of the eight Department of Education forums are great ideas, but they’re ideas,” Hanshaw replied, adding, “They’re not bills yet. There is no reason to convene the Legislature until we have bills ready for it to consider.”

Beginning to get the picture? It sounds very much as if the special session may not get underway until late this month or early June. Most public schools will be closed by then. Some students will be sent home for the summer within the next two weeks.

No students in schools, no leverage by shutting them down.

Delaying the session until June could be something of a two-edged sword, however. In both 2018 and earlier this year, school employee union members flooded the state Capitol. Hundreds of them waved signs, sang songs and chanted slogans at legislators. That, too, is pressure. And relatively good weather in June — at least compared to February and March — might encourage more of the union members to drive to Charleston.

With any luck, there won’t be the acrimony that existed last year or earlier this one, however.

Two big complaints by the unions were proposals to authorize charter schools in West Virginia and to provide education savings accounts to help parents pay the tuition. Union leaders were against those ideas — adamantly. But there were signals that allowing just two or three charter schools might be acceptable. And Justice, who at one point opposed the concept out of hand, reportedly is on board for a few charters.

In addition, some concepts the unions have opposed for years may not be deal-breakers. One example is locality pay differentials — giving higher salaries to teachers in regions of the state where it is more difficult to attract and keep educators. To judge by the DOE’s report, some of the educators attending forums, as well as many in the public, are ready to try that.

Friends, the special session needs to work. There are too many critical issues — such as providing more help to children who are innocent victims of the drug abuse crisis — that need action for the upcoming attempt by legislators to be a bust.

The good news is that there are valid reasons to believe something valuable will be accomplished during the special session — if no one gets hard-headed about it.

We’ll see, but not soon.

Mike Myer can be reached at mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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