Public school teachers, administrators, parents and representatives of special interest groups gathered in the West Virginia House of Delegates chamber Monday morning to give their take on a long, sweeping and controversial education reform bill. It was the first of two public hearings on the issue.
Each speaker was given 70 seconds to deliver their thoughts on Senate Bill 451, which was passed by the West Virginia Senate last week. Those at the hearing also gave remarks on the House Education Committee’s version of the proposal.
While most of the speakers at the morning hearing spoke out against the bill, roughly a quarter of those who took to the podium expressed support for the measure.
Jessica Salfia, an english teacher at Spring Mills High School in Berkeley County, argued that Senate Bill 451 does little to improve educational outcomes for West Virginia students.
“Last week, I listened to elected officials falsely claim that public education in this state is failing. The great work of my life was compared to a fatal disease. I have never felt less empowered,” she said. “If you truly want to know how to reform public education and empower teachers, I can tell you, public educators in West Virginia want professional development, content specific training; we need more school counselors, full time nurses in every school.”
Salfia added the state needs to provide more resources to address the mental health crisis in West Virginia’s communities and address other social and educational challenges.
“We need to talk about gun safety and violence,” she said. “We need smaller class size caps and programs. [We need] to address student poverty.”
Joanna Burt-Kinderman, a math consultant and instructional coach from Pocahontas County, testified last week before the House Education Committee. She noted during the public hearing Monday that National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, scores are rising in West Virginia.
“I'm really good at messy problems and want to help you out with this one,” Burt-Kinderman said. “One of the best predictors of student outcomes is family income. Any work you can do to diversify our economy and make sure our parents have good jobs is guaranteed to increase student outcomes in this state.”
Superintendents, board members and others involved in public education around the state also spoke out against provisions of the bill they say are attacks on teachers.
Some educators, including Wayne County second grade teacher Taylor Justice, looked back on last year’s nine-day statewide teacher strike. She said promises of additional pay raises have been unfairly tied to provisions she and other teachers oppose.
“Last year, we went back to work with I promise at the 5 percent raise and a fix to funding PEIA. The governor promises an additional 5 percent raise -- and now that promise is drowning, among other issues in Senate Bill 451,” Justice said.
But some speakers at the public hearing called for the state Legislature to go along with the changes in the Senate’s proposal. David Howell was one of them.
“You made promises that you would do educational reform in this state. Mitch Carmichael in the Senate had the guts and the courage to hand you a wonderful bill that would bring true reform to West Virginia's educational system,” Howell said. “My friends say that the governor and this body is throwing us under the bus. I remind them that we are the bus. You are choosing to dive out from the bus and jump under it.”
Americans for Prosperity state director Jason Huffman spoke specifically in favor of education savings accounts (ESAs).
“We believe that every child in West Virginia should have access to a high quality education regardless of their income or zip code, and we believe that essays would be an important step forward and achieving that goal,” Huffman said. “This will allow families to enroll their students in a school that best fits their child's unique educational needs, interests and abilities. Helping students and educators really fulfill their potential.”
Jessi Troyan of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy also spoke in favor of school choice provisions, such as education savings accounts and charter schools.
“West Virginia is one of only a few states -- four to be precise -- without any private school choice programs or charter school laws,” Troyan said. “Senate Bill 451 introduces the possibility of both of those educational alternatives to West Virginia families.”
But one student who spoke at the hearing argued that school choice options segregate students. Vincent Pinti, a senior at Bridgeport High School, spoke against charter schools, which have been whittled down since Senate Bill 451’s passage in the upper chamber.
“Do you understand that when we put in one school designed to compete with others, we are saying some kids deserve to win and some kids deserve to fail? We should not be asking for a choice to send our kids to a good school with teachers who are informed and care and are willing to prepare people like me for the 21st century economy,” Pinti said. “But [we should] demand that you will do your job and make sure every school across the state is given the resources they need to get ahead. Funding charter schools and pulling resources a public schools hurts people like me who have to go to public schools -- when charters and privates denies on the basis of extent, expensive accommodations.”
The House Finance Committee began examining Senate Bill 451 Monday afternoon. After an evening public hearing on the bill, the committee will continue discussion of the measure.
With the proposal originating in the Senate, strike-and-insert amendments are formative until adopted on the House floor.