Reporter’s Notebook: Making the grade in West Virginia
House Bill 206 was signed into law by Gov. Jim Justice on Friday, bringing an end to the education reform saga that started officially on Jan. 24 — a nearly six-month struggle.
The governor was supposed to hold a couple of bill signing ceremonies today — one in Kanawha County and one in Jefferson County — but those were canceled due to possible protests by teacher and school service personnel unions.
Surprisingly, there were not many teachers at the State Capitol Building last Monday evening. The touch-and-go tornado was unexpected, so surely it wasn’t the weather that kept teachers away. It reminded me almost of the rally the education employee unions had in October prior to the 2018 elections. There really wasn’t a lot of attendees at that either and that reflected the voter turnout a month later in November.
As we’ve discussed in the space before, I think the teachers can claim one or two scalps in the 2018 elections, but it didn’t appear that they voted in one unified block. I predict that 2020 will be mostly the same outcome. The only issue with that is while losing one or two seats in the House of Delegates to Democrats won’t hurt too much, losing Republican seats in the Senate could be a big deal.
For example, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, barely squeaked by in 2016 — a race heavy with union spending and negative advertising. This time he faces a primary opponent in Mason County Republican Del. Jim Butler.
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, represents a district traditionally represented by a Democrat in a district that appears to be leaning more liberal/progressive. The negative drumbeat regarding the Rockwool insulation manufacturing plant being built in Jefferson County already swept away two Republican delegates.
I’m not saying either will be swept from office, but there are plausible scenarios that could cause that to happen. It’s also just as likely that most teachers — after receiving a second 5 percent pay raise in two years and seeing the results of the additional funding for county school systems (see my story from this weekend) — will be happy and by 2020 will have no real burning desire to push anyone out of office.
Again, at the end of the day it appears the only real issue of concern in HB 206 is the public charter school provision. I imagine someone might try to challenge the new law in court, but I don’t see a victory at the end of the road for that move. One area where some say the bill is unconstitutional is the fact it’s a 155-page bill dealing with multiple areas. They say it violates the state constitution:
“Every such appropriation shall be embodied in a separate bill limited to some single work, object, or purpose therein stated and called therein a supplementary appropriation bill,” according to Article V of the constitution.
Yet, it does relate to a single object: education. Yeah, it might jump around the state code, but it all deals with education. It’s also not the first time the Legislature has dealt with a large omnibus bill. Former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin introduced an education omnibus in 2013. That bill was 166-pages long. It passed and as far as I know it was never challenged in court.
Another reason why some believe HB 206 is unconstitutional: “No independent free school district, or organization shall hereafter be created, except with the consent of the school district or districts out of which the same is to be created, expressed by a majority of the voters voting on the question.”
But how is authorizing a charter school in a county any different than having to create a new school because of a population influx? You’re not creating a new district when you do that, it’s the same county school system. I’m sure an attorney smarter than I can break that down but based on a layman’s reading of it I don’t see how this applies.
Either way, Justice signed the bill. It’s understood the compromise plan on charters — allowing for three charters in a three-year period and three more every three years — was an idea from the Governor’s Office. Carmichael balked at that last Monday when he was asked about it at the press table, but my sources tell me that’s true.
It gave Justice and the House what they wanted: a slow measured approach. It gave the Senate what it wanted: an unlimited charter school program. Lost in all of this, however, is another way it helps Justice: it takes an issue away from his Republican opponents in the 2020 May primary.
Sure, Woody Thrasher and Mike Folk can say Justice and the Legislature didn’t go far enough. And they can still use school choice as a weapon due to perceived flip-flopping. But by signing the bill, Justice takes a little bit of the sting out of that weapon.
Still though, Justice was trying to levy his prior support by teachers during the 2016 race for governor (he was still a Democrat then). Something tells me he’s lost that, especially since he canceled the public bill signing events due to protests.
Steven Allen Adams can be reached at email@example.com.