Issues related to public education lingered heavily in the background -- and at times worked their way to the front -- of a Monday special session of the West Virginia Legislature.
After teachers and service personnel in West Virginia went on a two-day strike over a controversial omnibus reform bill earlier this year, Gov. Jim Justice summoned lawmakers to address public education. Republican leaders in the House and Senate have not yet agreed on a path forward on “education betterment,” the term Justice used when he first made the special session call.
Justice amended that call to include 17 bills he vetoed on technical grounds. He also added 14 supplemental appropriation measures to various state agencies.
Over the course of nearly five hours, lawmakers made their way through 31 of the 33 items on the amended call -- leaving only a bill that pays for the session and legislation related to public education.
But that didn’t stop Democrats in the minority from trying, but failing, to push forward with their agenda on the matter.
Senate Democrats Introduce Education Bills, Fail to Get Traction
At a news conference before Monday’s floor sessions, Senate Democrats outlined eight pieces of legislation they had prepared to be introduced. They described the proposals as “non-controversial.”
Their agenda echoes a recent report the West Virginia Department of Education, which compiles comments from 17,000 people across the state, collected during a series of public forums and online. That report calls for more mental health services for students, an increased focus on vocational and technical schools and more local administrative flexibility, among other proposals.
Upon introduction, seven of the bills were referred to the Senate Education Committee. The eighth -- which deals with mental health services -- was sent to the chamber’s Finance Committee.
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso (D-Marion) moved to bring Senate Bill 1029 out of committee and straight to the floor. The measure calls for an average five percent pay raise for teachers and school service personnel.
Gov. Justice and Republican leaders had promised those raises before the 2018 midterm election and throughout the regular session. The upcoming fiscal year’s budget has those salary hikes earmarked.
Asked by Sen. Mike Woelfel (D-Cabell) when lawmakers would address education issues, Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo (R-Kanawha) said he was unsure of an exact date.
Prezioso’s motion failed on a 15-17 vote, with Republican Sens. Hamilton (Upshur) and Mann (Monroe) joining Democrats. The Republicans repeatedly broke from their party throughout the regular session on education related issues.
“We are disappointed, but not surprised,” Prezioso said in a statement. “We put in the effort to come up with good, reasonable ideas that will improve education in our state. It’s a pity that the Republicans won’t read them.”
Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson) has said he plans to roll the Democrats’ plan into a larger education reform package that is expected to include school choice proposals such as charter schools and education savings accounts.
Following Monday’s session, Carmichael said he felt the Legislature was efficient in its one-day return for work and that his caucus’ education reform package will be unveiled soon.
“We are nearly complete with the assimilation of the data from the Department of Education, all the outreach committees that we put together — and we're nearly complete on that assimilation,” Carmichael said.
Carmichael said his plan is to release a package — that takes into consideration ideas brought forth by Democrats (many of which were included in a failed omnibus bill during the regular session known as Senate Bill 415), but also adding school choice proposals such as charter schools and education savings accounts — at least a week ahead of lawmakers’ next return to Charleston.
“We don't think there's a moment to waste,” he said.
House of Delegates Splits Chamber into Four Select Committees
Through House Resolution 101, the House of Delegates authorized four select committees on education -- with all delegates, except for House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, to be split amongst the committees -- for the remainder of the special session.
The resolution was adopted on a 79-18 vote, with all opposed being Democrats.
“With the Legislature anticipated to return soon to continue the special session goal of ‘education betterment,’ the Speaker wants to maximize lawmakers’ input in this process,” House spokesman Jared Hunt said Monday. “With all delegates expected to be in Charleston and paid during this session, the Speaker wants to make sure they are working and actively participating in this process while they are here.”
During the Monday afternoon floor session, Speaker Hanshaw referred nine bills introduced to the various select committees on education, which have respectively been named A, B, C and D.
Seven of those bills -- introduced by Del. Sean Hornbuckle (D-Cabell) and other Democrats -- mirror the efforts outlined earlier in the day by their counterparts in the Senate. The other two, sponsored by Del. Roy Cooper (R-Summers), relate to the school calendar and testing as well as providing a bonus for teachers who instruct in areas of critical need, such as math and special education.
House Minority Leader Tim Miley (D-Harrison) said he welcomes the select committees tasked with evaluating the various bills.
“Education reform is an important issue and all members of the Legislature should be engaged in developing the policies that will shape the future of our state’s education system,” Miley said. “I look forward to getting to work to review education policy proposals in a bipartisan manner.”
Hunt said delegates will meet to examine the education bills the next time Hanshaw and Carmichael call their members back to work, which is expected in the coming weeks and before the next round of interim meetings scheduled for June 17 and 18.