Republicans in the West Virginia Senate were unable Saturday to push a long, sweeping and controversial education reform measure to a vote. Now in the middle of a special legislative session on the matter, lawmakers have toiled over the issue for months -- while public educators have voiced strong opposition to proposed bills that include charter schools and education savings accounts.
Lawmakers in the upper chamber will return to the Capitol Sunday to continue working on the Student Success Act offered by Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson. The now-140-page bill would also provide mental health services, give school employees a pay raise and change the criteria that would be considered during a layoff, among other things.
Carmichael and other Republicans were hopeful they could fast-track the bill immediately after introduction and put it up for a vote Saturday. But a mostly-partisan divide has slowed those efforts.
Democrats Fail to Get Their Bills Moving, Block Republican Attempts at Rule Suspension
After Carmichael gaveled in, Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, attempted to get a series of eight bills that Democrats have offered out of committee and to the floor.
Many of the provisions in the bills the minority party has offered -- which echo a recent report from the state Department of Education -- are lumped into the Carmichael’s Student Success Act. Along with teacher union leaders, Democrats have called on education reform to take place in a piecemeal fashion, with each proposal considered on its own merit.
Prezioso’s motion was rejected on a 15-18 vote, with Republican Sens. Bill Hamilton (Upshur) and Kenny Mann (Monroe) joining the minority.
Then, Carmichael’s bill -- now labeled Senate Bill 1039 -- was introduced.
With bills needing to be be read three times on separate days, a motion to suspend rules and bring the omnibus bill up for a vote was rejected on an 18-15 vote. A four-fifths majority is needed to suspend those rules.
Also introduced Saturday was Senate Bill 1040, which would allow for education savings accounts -- a voucher-like program that allows public funds to be spent on some forms of private education.
A motion to expedite that measure was also rejected on a 18-15 vote.
Teachers Make Presence Felt As Senators Continued to Discuss the Issues at Hand
Despite the education bills not being expedited, members of the Senate spoke on the floor for about an hour and a half. It was during those remarks that the teachers made their presence known.
Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, argued that Senate Bill 1039 is a repeat of Senate Bill 451, another education omnibus from the regular session that ultimately failed.
“We're about to spend three days talking about this bill when my understanding is that the House intends to take up each one of the individual measures in this omnibus bill one by one,” Romano said. “I would urge you over the next few hours -- before we come back tomorrow -- to break that bill up. Let's have an up or down vote on each one of the issues that are important to education.
Lining the galleries, packed outside the chamber and wandering the grounds of the Capitol complex, teachers cheered on Democrats like Romano who spoke against the bill.
Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, argued that the sweeping proposal is different from Senate Bill 451.
“This is quite a different bill. This has had intense efforts to reach out across the aisle. We have made this public to everyone involved -- to every citizen in the state of West Virginia to our colleagues across the hall,” Takubo said. “We've asked for input. We've looked at the Board of Education and then went statewide. We've looked at all their input and the voices and the comments and the recommendations.”
But Democrats continued to paint the measure as a repeat of what came during the regular session.
“This is the same script, the same format that was forced down our throats,” Sen. Paul Hardesty, D-Logan, said.
After the crowd cheered following Hardesty’s comments, Carmichael -- who has caught the ire of educators across the state during the past 18 months -- gave out a warning.
“I don’t know how many times I have to say that demonstrations from the gallery are not permitted under the rules of the Senate,” Carmichael said after pounding the gavel to call order. “We so much appreciate you being here, we welcome you here. But, please, observe our rules.”
Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, announced a soon-to-be-introduced resolution that could -- with approval from state voters -- amend the state constitution to pull rulemaking authority away from the state board of education and into the hands of lawmakers. During a speech that followed Blair was interrupted by some in the crowd.
The protest at the Capitol was reminiscent of the two strikes that occured there about 18 months apart.
Earlier this year, teachers and service personnel walked off the job for two days. They successfully rallied against another omnibus education reform measure known as Senate Bill 451. A year before, they walked off the job demanding better pay and a long-term fix to the troubled public health insurance system.
Education Reform Still Weeks From Completion
Following Saturday’s floor session, Carmichael expressed frustration about not being able to push the bill to an immediate vote. He took aim at Democrats and said he believed negotiations between parties -- as the bill was readied for introduction -- led him to believe that would happen.
“The hypocrisy of not acting on the bill today is palpable,” Carmichael said. “Nevertheless, as one wants to be an obstructionist, they can come here and be an obstructionist. We will continue the march towards student success in West Virginia.”
Senators will reconvene at 2 p.m. Sunday to continue work on the two Republican education bills.
The omnibus measure will be on the amendment stage. The bill proposing education savings accounts is on unfinished business on the calendar.
Should they pass the Senate, the House of Delegates would still have their own opportunity to consider the bills. But that’s not likely to happen quickly.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw has said he intends to wait until the next scheduled interim meetings, on June 17, to reconvene the lower chamber.