West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, held a news conference Thursday to boost support for his sweeping education reform package, but questions remain over how long the upper chamber will take to approve those proposals.
Carmichael touted his plan -- centered around a piece of legislation known as the “Student Success Act -- by holding up signs that detailed SAT scores and National Assessment of Educational Progress data on West Virginia. He described the current condition of the state’s public education system as near last in the country.
"There is no way to defend this system," Carmichael said.
Senators are scheduled to reconvene Saturday to take up a controversial 144-page bill. The proposal allows charter schools, mental health services for students, a tax credit for school supplies and includes a provision that would withhold pay for teachers during a strike.
Also included is a pay raise for teachers and school service personnel. Those increases wouldn’t take effect until 2020, according to a draft version of the bill. Carmichael said the teacher raises earmarked in his bill could come sooner if the bill gains traction.
“I put that out as a placeholder in the original bill [for] 2020,” Carmichael said. “It will be implemented this year. We’ll make the changes to ensure they get the pay raise this year, assuming we get the bill through the process.”
The House of Delegates passed a five percent pay raise for teachers and service personnel at the end of the regular session, but the Senate failed to take up the bill. Instead, lawmakers from both chambers agreed to earmark those raises in the upcoming budget, which accounts for the 2019-2020 school year.
Carmichael also said he is planning a separate measure that would address education savings accounts, a voucher-like program in which parents would get public funds to pay for some form of private education.
Senate Republicans have been pushing a tight timetable to address education, with current plans only having the chamber convene for just one day. The Senate’s rules state that a bill be read three times on separate days, thus, four-fifths of members present would have to agree to suspend rules in order to expedite the bill’s passage.
Republicans hold 20 of 34 seats in the upper chamber. With all members present, the majority party would need to 28 total votes for that rule suspension to take place.
Another lingering issue is how two Republican Senators, who have frequently broken with their party on education issues, Sens. Bill Hamilton, representing Upshur County, and Kenny Mann, from Monroe County, will vote. Both have also declined to support procedural votes associated with the party’s previous education bill, including for rule suspension.
“Am I confident? No, I am not 100 percent confident,” Carmichael said Thursday when asked whether he believes Democrats will get on board with an effort to speed up the bill. “I'm appealing to those on both sides of the aisle who have received the bills. They've been thoroughly vetted.”
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said those negotiations are ongoing on whether to suspend the chamber’s rules to complete action in a single day.
Part of those negotiations may involve to what degree the majority Republicans will consider a series of eight education bills introduced by Senate Democrats earlier this month.
The minority party’s agenda echoes a recent report the West Virginia Department of Education, which drew from a series of forums around the state and other public comment. That report calls for an increase in school employee pay, more mental health services for students, an increased focus on vocational and technical schools and more local administrative flexibility, among other proposals.
Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said he is leaning towards not voting to suspend rules at the moment, but that could change.
"Much could happen in the coming days. I would suspend rules if we could vote on issues in separate bills instead of a take it or leave it omnibus," Baldwin said.
Should action not be completed in a day, Carmichael and Senate Finance Chair Craig Blair said work would on the matter would continue Sunday and Monday.
The leaders of school employee unions say their members will be at the Capitol Saturday to oppose the GOP Senate’s plan.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw announced his chamber will return to work June 17 to coincide with already-scheduled interim meetings.