West Virginia House Passes Controversial Omnibus After Hours of Debate Over Charter Schools

Jun 19, 2019

Updated Wednesday, Jun 19, 2019 at 11:40 p.m. 

The West Virginia House of Delegates has passed its version of a long, sweeping and controversial education reform measure. The bill, which is the latest in a series of omnibus proposals, cleared the lower chamber Wednesday on a 51-47 vote after delegates considered amendments on third reading.

Education reform efforts failed during the regular legislative session, so lawmakers are in the middle of a special session. The months-long debate -- which took up more than nine hours on the House floor Wednesday -- about overhauling the state’s public education system has focused on charter schools. Teachers, their unions and Democrats oppose the school choice measures touted by leaders of the Republican majority.

"I think we are at great risk -- if we've not crossed the point of no return -- of doing lasting damage to our state by demoralizing the educators in our state," Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison said just before the bill went to a vote.

 House Education Chair Del. Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, lauded the passage of the bill and said he hopes the bill clears the Senate with little issue. 

 "I think it's a big win for not only traditional public education, but parents and children who certainly have expressed an interest in having some of the same education choice options that are prevalent across the country," Espinosa said. "By and large, I think the amendments strengthen the bill."

 West Virginia teachers and other school employees went on a two-day strike in February. They successfully rallied against a Senate omnibus bill that included similar proposals.

 

House Bill 206, as passed Wednesday in the House, would give teachers and school service personnel a pay raise but also include proposals teachers and union leaders have called attacks on public education.

West Virginia Education Association president Dale Lee said the passage of the bill means his members will continue their fight in the Senate. He said he thinks some lawmakers saw holding the special session in the summer might have slowed teachers efforts to oppose the bill. 

"These people are committed. What I hope now is that they continue that commitment. They continued into this next year, and they continue the commitment into the 2020 election," Lee said. "Because that's the next step that we have to do is we are not satisfied with the way things go in the House and the Senate. We have to change the makeup of the houses."

A majority of speakers, including many educators, voiced their opposition to the measure during a Wednesday morning public hearing.

Harrison County teacher Tonya Stuart Rinehart used her 60 seconds at the podium to silently protest school choice proposals such as charter schools. She placed a piece of duct tape with "88%" written across it -- to represent a state Department of Education report that showed 88 percent of the public opposes charters.

Later that afternoon, lawmakers made their way through more than two dozen proposed changes to the bill.

The amendments adopted Wednesday include allowing for three charter schools for the 2021-2022 academic year and then -- beginning in 2023 -- allowing for three more charters every three years. The original bill capped the number of charter schools at ten. County school boards would be the only entity allowed to authorize a charter.

The change on charter schools -- which Del. Espinosa described as part of a deal between the House, the Senate and Gov. Jim Justice -- was adopted on a 51-44 vote.

Other approved changes include:

  • A tax credit for parents buying back-to-school clothes and supplies beginning July 1, 2021.
  • Preventing the Schools for the Deaf and Blind from applying to become a charter school.
  • Increasing the ratio of support personnel to students from 4.7 per 1,000 to 5.0 per 1,000.

Following changes to the conditions on the number of charter schools, Del. Mark Dean, R-Mingo, proposed an amendment that would have eviscerated charter school language from the bill. Dean’s amendment, which was debated for nearly two hours, was rejected 45-52.

The House, which returned to its work Monday, balked at two Senate proposals that addressed education. The upper chamber’s omnibus included anti-strike provisions, which aren’t in House Bill 206. The House also did not act on a Senate bill that calls for education savings accounts, a voucher program that allows for public dollars to be spent on private school tuition.

Following the passage of House Bill 206, Del. Pat McGeehan tried to force the Senate into accepting the proposal as is by moving to adjourn sine die. McGeeehan's motion was defeated  on a 38-58 vote, thus allowing for both the Senate and House to continue work on the measure. 

House Bill 206 now heads to the Senate for consideration.