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Democrats announce education bills ahead of special session

CHARLESTON — Despite word a special session on state education reform will be delayed until next month, Democrats with the West Virginia Senate announced Thursday they would submit new education bills next week.

Democrats unveiled eight bills addressing different aspects of state education reform, saying in a press release they “are no longer waiting for leadership to start leading.”

Leaders in the GOP-controlled Senate have said a special session on education reform likely will not happen until June, and next week’s special session instead will focus on vetoed bills.

State teacher and service personnel unions held a press conference earlier this week, requesting Gov. Jim Justice cancel the special session on education, saying Republicans planned to use it to reintroduce legislation for charter schools and education savings vouchers which was not approved during the regular session. Educators went on a two-day strike earlier this year to protest the legislation which was attached to a promised 5 percent pay increase. A standalone pay increase bill also did not pass.

In Thursday’s press release, Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said it is time to focus on positive changes to education.

“We are ready. We have a plan,” Prezioso said in the release. “Since there’s no agreement between the leadership of both houses nor anything coming from the governor, we are offering compromise bills that nobody can disagree with. If we really want to discuss a solution, here are eight great ideas. Let’s talk about them.”

Among the bills unveiled Thursday are a competitive grant program for vocational and technical education in middle schools, modifications to the state school aid formula, increased allowances for school counselors, nurses and social workers, a teacher pay raise and authorizing studies on educational issues.

A “High Quality Instruction” bill would provide pay incentives for teachers in mathematics, reform the Underwood-Smith scholarship program which gives financial aid to teachers who agree to work in the state for a period of time, and would give faculty senates more leeway in allocating classroom materials to teachers or librarians.

“Innovation in Education” would “restore local public-school flexibility by reforming local school improvement councils and reforming the school innovation zone act to increase flexibility and decrease bureaucracy,” according to the bill.

The Democrats plan to introduce a bill to provide $3 million for the Drug Free Mother Baby Project, which seeks to reduce the rate of drug-addicted babies born to addicted mothers. The money would fund up to 10 pilot projects over a five-year period.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, issued a statement late Thursday, saying many of the ideas put forth by Democrats were included in the Senate’s original Education Ominibus Bill. But Carmichael also indicated lawmakers would continue to pursue charter schools and vouchers.

“There is no question that we must address the evolving social and emotional needs of our students. I am confident that, working together, we can address these problems while providing school choice options for parents and students,” he said in the press release. “I believe there is room in West Virginia to encourage and support traditional public schools as well as to provide alternatives for the precious children of West Virginia – the ones who matter most in this process – to pursue the best educational outcomes for their circumstances.”

On Wednesday, House GOP leaders announced they were beginning work on legislation to improve the state’s education system, with a focus on flexibility at the local level, funding “critical needs” at local schools, and providing support and resources for classroom teachers and administrators.

“I’ve instructed our House attorneys to begin a systematic review of the state codes dealing with education to identify any unnecessary, antiquated or burdensome laws that are hindering educators’ ability to deliver a world-class education to our students,” House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said in a press release Wednesday. “While much of these sections of state code were well-intentioned and may have been good ideas at the time, they have come to shackle the hands of our educators, who now spend far too much time complying with rules and regulations instead of teaching our students.”

In addition to House committee attorneys, Hanshaw said he has invited attorneys from the House Minority Office, state Senate, and state Board of Education to participate in the code review process to help better inform any potential legislation.

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