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Mike Caputo: WV voices left out of Senate’s education bill

February 11, 2019

Last year’s historic and nearly unprecedented teachers strike here helped trigger a wave of educator protests across the country, and for the first time in more than two decades, West Virginia was being once again viewed as a place where the voice of working families can be heard.

But it is important to keep in mind that prior to the strike West Virginia working families were entering the fourth year of unrelenting legislative attacks intended to lower wages, reduce workplace safety standards and silence workers.

Needless to say, the success of the educator strike was a big blow to the Republican legislative leadership, in particular to Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who served as the biggest roadblock to a compromise and was therefore the focal point of the protests.

In a move that can only be viewed as retaliatory, President Carmichael and his leadership are currently pushing a massive, omnibus education so-called “reform” bill that has attached a proposed 5 percent pay raise and sick leave benefits to countless damaging measures intended to benefit private, for-profit schools at the expense of other public school students.

When the Senate Education Committee took up the massive Senate Bill 451, the only “experts” to testify about the bill’s provisions were representatives from outside the state, one on behalf of a for-profit charter school company, and the other from a right wing “think tank.” Not a single West Virginia education representative was consulted or asked to testify.

Carmichael then used a procedural move only used twice in the past 100 years (the last time being in the 1960s) to bypass the traditional committee process and get the bill before the full Senate.

Now that the bill has reached the House of Delegates, I certainly am happy to hear that the House Education Committee chair said he wants to allow complete and thorough deliberation, and I appreciate the Speaker sending the legislation to two committees in that same spirit.

I have never seen such circus-like antics played out in the state Capitol by the Senate Republican leadership.

Over the 23 years I have served, legislators from both sides of the aisle have shared, argued and debated differing ideas and values on a regular basis. That’s how the process works.

So for a body that has a 20-14 majority to form a “Committee of the Whole” because the leadership didn’t believe it had enough votes to get it through traditional committee deliberation is just wrong.

The legislation that has come to us from the Senate is nothing more than revenge politics. Yet this “omnibus” legislation covering details ranging from classroom content and size to school system funding and local governance is being described as addressing “education in general.”

As a result, there is now turmoil once again in our education community, spurring possible strike votes and prompting the governor to call for calm.

While the Republican Senate leadership touts “bipartisan support” for the legislation, all I have observed so far is bipartisan opposition. All the Democrats and two of the Republicans in the Senate voted against Senate Bill 451. Many Republicans in the House have expressed concerns and objections, while all my fellow Democrats stand strongly against the so-called omnibus bill.

The Republican Senate leadership also claims to have received multiple messages of public support for the legislation. I would like to see evidence of that, because the overwhelming majority of messages my colleagues and I have received are firmly against it.

Senate Republican leaders purposely excluded teachers, parents and education group representatives from the process. Those who were consulted include representatives of multi-million-dollar corporations, dark-money special interest political groups and companies that want to establish for-profit schools to benefit from West Virginia taxpayer funds.

To try to gain public favor for these changes to our schools, the Republican Senate leaders continuously put down our teachers and educational system, never once mentioning the odds our impoverished state fights against - and in countless instances, overcomes.

West Virginia’s educational system has had a tremendous positive impact on the life of just about every lawmaker, regardless of our career paths, or very few of us would have made it to public office. I, for one, could name every school teacher, cook, coach, school bus driver and custodian who helped bring me along.

But everyday residents of West Virginia who appreciate our educators have had no voice in the development of this legislation.

I am hopeful that is about to change. I trust that members of the House Republican leadership will stay true to their word and allow input from all who are involved in West Virginia’s educational system.

Del. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, House Minority Whip, is UMWA International District 31 vice president emeritus and vice president of the West Virginia AFL-CIO.

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