After weeks of speculation over the contents of an education reform bill, lawmakers in the West Virginia Senate are now releasing details of the legislation. Widely known as an “omnibus” bill, the legislation is set to offer pay raises and address healthcare, but also offer additional components opposed by leaders of teacher and service personnel unions.
The measure originated in the Senate Education Committee, but hasn’t been formally introduced.
The committee met Thursday to hear a presentation about the 100-page-plus bill-in-progress.
Senate Education Chair Patricia Rucker told the committee the meeting would be informational only and there would be little time to ask questions about the bill.
“Before we get started, I want to let everybody know this is just going to be a presentation. We are not going to delve deeply. I know that the draft was only made available just a few hours ago. So, we are going to give the committee plenty, you know, time to digest it and look over it overnight,” Rucker said.
Committee counsel then outlined the bill over the course of a nearly hour-long presentation, detailing a laundry list of proposals -- including pay raises, funding for PEIA, differential pay based on subject expertise, the establishment of charter schools, education savings accounts, increasing the teacher-pupil ratio for K-6 classrooms and other provisions that leaders of teachers unions call an “attack on public education.”
Democrats on the committee expressed concerns over the timeline of the bill’s progress, the cost of such an expansive proposal and the multiple versions of the bill in front of them during the meeting.
Sen. Stephen Baldwin of Greenbrier County questioned Rucker about what to expect moving forward.
“I got the bill a couple hours ago. That was 147 pages. Then, I got a different version that's 130-some pages. And this is, as you said, rightly, a comprehensive bill and I'm trying to sort through it and it's especially difficult if we have different versions floating before us and are then told ‘We may vote on this tomorrow.’ So is it your intention that we will have a single version and that we may very well vote on this tomorrow?” Baldwin asked.
“That is a possibility,” Rucker replied.
The spotlight on public education began last legislative session when educators and school service personnel went on a nine-day statewide strike demanding better pay and more funding for their health insurance program.
After holdouts from Senate Republicans, the strike ended when lawmakers agreed to a average 5 percent pay increase for all state employees and funding for the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
Other education bills were introduced last session that received less attention. Union leaders representing educators and service personnel fought against many of them. This session, those proposals are back -- this time wrapped up in the same bill as the pay hike and another temporary healthcare solution.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael says this session’s comprehensive education reform is a “moral imperative” and that the provisions of the bill -- as they work their way through the legislative process -- keep students as the top priority.
“I'm certain that there are some teachers and some union leaders that would rather just have an enormous pay raise — which is a component of this bill — and not reform the system in any manner,” Carmichael said. “But I am confident that really great teachers want to have the opportunity to do their job in the best possible manner. I believe -- and I'm completely committed to the fact that -- this bill enables teachers to do their job that they are trained to do -- and gets the state out of the way and compensates them accordingly.”
A month before the 2018 midterm election, Gov. Jim Justice and Republican legislative leaders like Carmichael announced intentions to provide another round pay raises and $100 million dedicated to PEIA. During his State of the State address, Gov. Justice increased his proposal to fund PEIA to $150 million.
But union leaders say the bill’s additional provisions are not in the interest of public education. They also say the speed at which this bill might flow through the committee process is troubling.
“I guess the first word that comes to my mind is confusion seem to be to me in that room in the committee room today, there was lots of confusion, especially from those senators who had not been able to see a copy of this proposed bill in the draft form,” American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia President Fred Albert said.
The Senate Education Committee is set to continue discussion of the bill Friday. A draft copy of the bill -- although it has not been formally introduced -- is available online.