The West Virginia Senate held a more than nine-and-a-half-hour committee meeting Wednesday as an entire body to focus on a long, sweeping and controversial education reform bill. The chamber’s 34-member Committee of the Whole was briefed on the measure, questioned counsel and heard presentations from expert witnesses. The committee has yet to move to the amendment stage or send the bill to the full floor for consideration -- leaving deliberations to continue Thursday.
The Senate gaveled in at 11 a.m., when Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, moved to resolve into the Committee of the Whole. A 19-15 roll call vote adopted that motion, with Sen. Bill Hamilton, of Upshur, being the lone Republican to break from the majority in agreeing to bring the committee together for a meeting.
Committee counsel outlined the bill’s provisions noting the bill’s fiscal impact on various state agencies. The total projected cost of the legislation is estimated at well over $200 million, according to fiscal notes from multiple state agencies.
The 133-page committee substitute of Senate Bill 451 has some provisions championed by a majority of public educators and the leaders of their unions, including pay raises for teachers and school service personnel, and a $250 tax credit for educators who purchase school supplies using their own money.
The measure also includes the establishment of public charter schools, education savings accounts, a provision that makes school employees sign off on the deduction of union dues every year, as well as other issues that many West Virginia educators and their unions oppose.
The committee substitute includes some changes to the measure, including:
- The removal of a provision related to the teacher-pupil ratio for grades 1 through 6,
- Clarifying that all extracurricular activities are not permitted during a work stoppage due to strike, Clarifying that the West Virginia Board of Education has rulemaking authority regarding public charter schools,
- Capping the number of education savings accounts to be open at any one time at 2,500
- Allowing teachers to exchange every 10 days of accrued sick leave for a $500 bonus upon retirement (instead of exchanging sick leave for healthcare coverage upon retirement, which was a provision in a prior version of the bill).
But as the entire bill was evaluated through questions of committee counsel, Democrats in the Senate took aim at various aspects of the latest version of Senate Bill 451. The minority party focused heavily on the establishment of public charter schools -- including teacher certification and overall accountability of those institutions.
Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, questioned counsel about certification requirements for teachers at public charter schools. After being told the bill provides no requirements of a bachelor’s degree or high school diploma, Unger continued to press committee staff attorney Hank Hager about what, if any, requirements would exist.
“How about any school at all? I mean -- if they were ever in school, whatever -- are they required to have any educational requirements?” Unger asked.
Committee counsel then explained that those requirements could be established by the charter school’s governing board.
Sen. Takubo countered Unger’s line of questioning by illustrating that those certification requirements could be established well above those of public schools.
“Is there anything in the bill that would prohibit the charter from having only Ph.D.s teaching or instructing at that school?” Takubo asked.
“No, there's nothing that would prohibit that,” Hager replied.
Among the other hot-button issues for Democrats is the bill’s non-severability clause, which states that the entire bill would be deemed invalid should a court deem any one of the measure’s provisions unconstitutional.
“I'm just kind of perplexed by it. To me, honestly, it's just it's kind of mean-spirited. I think it's trying to discourage anyone who doesn't like the bill from from challenging it,” Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said.
“Normally, I would think that a justification for something like this would be that things are so interrelated. In other words, in this case, public education reform,” Hager told Palumbo, meaning that all aspects of public education reform under the bill would be considered intertwined and inseparable from one another.
As members of the Senate met as the Committee of the Whole, the state Board of Education held an emergency meeting to address Senate Bill 451. Following presentations from speakers, the Board voted on whether to express support or opposition for each of the proposals in the bill. Those votes appear to back the current status of public education in the state and reinforce the positions of many educators, service personnel and union leaders on the bill.
After an evening recess, Senators from both parties called up expert witnesses to testify before the committee.
Democrats called up state leaders of education and service personnel unions -- including the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association -- as well as local professionals working in the public school system.
Republicans called proponents of charter schools and school choice from national organizations focused on those issues, including the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, EdChoice and the Institute for Justice. Local speakers in support of the bill called to testify included a representative from the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and one parent from Huntington with children of school age.
It’s not clear whether the House of Delegates will support Senate Bill 451.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw issued a statement Wednesday, indicating no specific position on the lengthy proposal aside from provisions related to teacher and service personnel pay raises and funding for PEIA.
“From the beginning of this session, House leadership has made clear that improving the compensation and benefits for our state’s teachers and school service personnel is a top priority for this legislative session, and our commitment to that goal remains unwavering,” Speaker Hanshaw said in the release.
“We, too, have been following developments in the state Senate, and will deliberately review any legislation they send our way,” Hanshaw added.
With the Senate Committee of the Whole still yet to consider amendments or take any action on the bill, they will reconvene following the Senate-proper’s business conducted during a 9 a.m. Thursday floor session.