Democrats voice frustration over education bill in West Virginia Senate

CHARLESTON — Democrats Saturday were critical of the Republican-backed education bill that was passed Friday night by the state Senate Education Committee.

They were displeased, among other things, with how the bill originated in committee rather than introduction on the Senate floor, a process they said led to several versions of the legislation and confusion.

“I can’t begin to tell you how frustrated I am by what happened this week,” said Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, in a statement released Saturday by the Senate Democratic minority caucus. “We received five versions of a complicated, 140-page bill in just over 24 hours and then were told to vote on it. No transparency. No give and take. No room for collaboration.”

The statement said Republicans Thursday revealed the legislation and less than 24 hours later the Education Committee was asked to vote on it.

Originating the bill in committee shortened the time senators had to do research or get guidance from constituents, the statement said. Procedurally, the bill was set to go to the Senate floor until Democrats pressed the leadership on why a bill with such a large fiscal impact was not going to be seen by the Finance Committee.

Baldwin and other Democrats on the Education Committee objected to the rushed process in a five-hour committee meeting on Friday.

“Though committee members did not see a draft of the bill until the day before the vote, two out-of-state lobbyists had enough advance notice to schedule flights into the capital city, read the bill and prepare presentations for the committee,” the release said.

The legislation creates charter schools, which have been rejected by the Legislature in the past, allowing sick days to be banked for retirement and a 5 percent pay raise, providing public funds for educational savings accounts, larger class sizes, more flexibility for counties to pay a higher wage to teachers in certain fields and require teachers to each year approve the deduction of union dues.

The bill would withhold pay to teachers if schools are closed due to a work stoppage and a clause that if any part of the bill is challenged, the entire act would be voided.

“Many people feel this education bill is nothing more than retaliation for the embarrassment teachers caused the GOP last year,” Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, said. “They might be onto something.”

The bill passed the committee 7-5. Democrats on the committee asked they not be listed as sponsors.

State Democratic Party Chairman Belinda Biafore also issued a statement on what she called “the dangerous GOP education bill.”

“Yesterday we all attended, watched, or heard about the meeting in Senate Education that went on for hours while we listened to out-of-state lobbyists speak on behalf of the bill and charter schools,” she said. “These out-of-state lobbyists had input into this bill yet not a single West Virginia teacher, parent, or student did.

The legislation creates an unequal opportunity for students and puts the public education system at risk, she said.

“This is not ‘reform’ as they call it, it’s retaliation for the teachers’ strike last year where teachers and school service personnel fought for their students and the pay raises that they deserve,” Biafore said.

Groups representing teachers, school service employees, principals and administrators have planned a press conference for 11 a.m. today in Charleston.

In the meantime, Americans for Prosperity-West Virginia said the legislation would provide children more educational opportunities.

“Educational opportunity must be available to all students, regardless of their zip code or income level. Universal education savings accounts help achieve that. The Comprehensive Education Reform Act makes important strides toward achieving that goal and has the potential to put the Mountain State at the forefront of educational innovation,” State Director Jason Huffman said. “We applaud principled lawmakers for taking this bold step toward empowering students, families, and educators.”