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West Virginia senators get schooled on education bill

January 31, 2019
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Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, serves as chairman of the Senate as state senators convene for only the fourth time in state history as a Committee of the Whole to discuss a comprehensive education bill at the Capitol building in Charleston, W.Va., Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia senators were schooled about comprehensive legislation opposed by teachers to revamp the education system Wednesday while a state board urged them to consider its components as separate bills.

Senators heard a presentation before asking questions to chamber lawyers over several hours about the bill.

On Monday, the Republican-led Senate approved a rare motion to have the entire chamber consider the bill as a committee, skipping the step of sending it through the finance committee. The move was an indication the bill did not have enough support in the finance committee.

After its regular daily session earlier Wednesday, the Senate voted 19-15 to head into committee, chaired by Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley. Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, joined Democrats in voting against the motion.

An evening session included witness testimony. The first speaker was West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee, who doesn’t like the bill because it should have separate proposals, not everything in one package.

“It shouldn’t be all or nothing,” he said.

As the evening session started, Blair set aside a comment from Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, who was concerned about road conditions at night during extremely cold weather.

“We’re early in the session. What is the extreme urgency of this?” Stollings said. “Some of us go home to commute. What’s the difference of calling us back in order at 10 o’clock in the morning? I just cannot understand the urgency that we’re going to be all night in zero degree weather.”

Among other things, the bill would create public charter schools, establish savings accounts for families to pay for private school and require teachers to sign off annually on union dues. Some call the bill a payback for last year’s nine-day strike when teachers won a 5 percent pay raise. The bill includes funding for an additional 5 percent raise for teachers and other state employees.

The latest version removed a plan to increase elementary school class sizes in public schools, which teachers had vehemently opposed.

Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, questioned a key clause that would invalidate the entire bill if any part is struck down.

“What’s the educational purpose of this clause?” he said. “Is there any value to it that will advance education? To me, it’s mean spirited. It’s trying to discourage anyone who doesn’t like the bill from challenging it.”

Gov. Jim Justice has dubbed the clause “a poison pill.”

Senators were allowed to ask about every aspect of the bill, although many went unquestioned. Much of the focus was on charter schools and education savings accounts.

Sen. Tom Takubo., R-Kanawha, said 44 states have some form of charter schools, which typically are tailored to students’ needs. The bill would create a commission to oversee charter schools. The commission, school boards from one or more counties, and higher education institutions would give the schools the go-ahead to form.

Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, asked whether charter schools were designed to take over public education in the state. Senate education committee attorney Hank Hager said those schools are intended to supplement the education system.

The state Board of Education, also meeting Wednesday, urged lawmakers to break the bill up into separate components, including the teacher pay raises. Among the issues the board urged lawmakers to reject were charter schools, education savings accounts and a provision to withhold pay if teachers go on strike and schools are closed.

Teachers unions are watching the Senate closely. Teachers packed the Senate gallery to listen to Wednesday’s session.

The West Virginia Education Association has said another teachers’ strike is among its options. Teachers in Mingo County this week voted overwhelmingly to authorize a one-day walkout if necessary.

A coalition group called Families Leading Change is scheduled to hold a rally against the bill Thursday evening at the Capitol.

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