W.Va. ‘Education Betterment’ Special Session on Hold, Lawmakers Instead Pivot to Cleaning Up Vetoes

May 15, 2019

West Virginia lawmakers are scheduled to return to Charleston at 2 p.m. on Monday to reconvene a special session on education betterment that was called months ago. But Republican leaders have yet to agree on exactly what kinds of reforms will be considered. So instead of focusing on education, the special session will likely address bills Governor Jim Justice vetoed on technical grounds.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw announced Monday they’re calling lawmakers back to Charleston next week.

Hanshaw said in a statement this week that the House has been working to build consensus around their plans to overhaul education in the state. Carmichael said Wednesday his side of the rotunda is working to do the same and create a plan in which the two chambers can agree.

That’s yet to happen.

“There’s just not the consensus and we just most recently got the report from the state Department of Education. We're making some changes to [our legislative proposals] and then the Democrats rolled out their plan. We want to incorporate a lot of it,” Carmichael said in a Wednesday interview. “We're not there yet. We want to be there. The state Senate wants to be there very soon.”

Senate Minority Leader Prezioso and his Democratic caucus in the upper chamber rolled out their plan this week to improve education in the state. The Democrats announced what they hope will become six bills.

Prezioso said they came up with their agenda based on what they heard during their own listening tour and what came out of a recent report from the Department of Education.

“We didn’t make up things that we thought should be in this bill. We took the concerns of those individuals that spoke to us and, in turn, addressed education,” Prezioso said. “Some of the things --  obviously, the wrap-around services is about the number one issue that teachers are concerned with.”

The Democrats’ agenda echoes a 33-page report from the West Virginia Department of Education released last week that calls for more mental and health care services for students. It also called for increasing teacher and service personnel pay and more local administrative flexibility.

Also notable, though, the report shows that 88 percent of respondents rejected charter schools and education savings accounts.

“I'm not sure I hundred percent agree that it's reflective of the public sentiment at large,” said Senate Education Chair Patricia Rucker.

Rucker has pushed for charter schools and education savings accounts -- even in the face of opposition from educators and others in the public. Those proposals were part of the reason teachers and service personnel across the state walked off the job for two days earlier this year. 

“Of course, [educators in the state] do have a very strong stake in what we decide, and they are very interested, and I am glad they were involved and gave their input. But, in terms of what it says about the citizens as a whole, I’m not sure it really does that” she said.

So far, she and other Republican leaders in the House and Senate have yet to roll out their plans for education reform. But charter schools and education savings accounts remain a top priority for her and the GOP-led Senate.

The same seems to ring true for some top Republicans in the House.

Del. Paul Espinosa --  who is returning as chairman of the lower chamber’s education committee for the special session -- says he is working to gain support for those ideas.

“With regard to empowering our local school districts with school choice options, I would say that -- based on what we're hearing from from our House Republican members -- an overwhelming majority continue to believe that we ought to provide some of the same options that most of the country currently provides,” Espinosa said Tuesday.

The continued talk of school choice proposals like charter schools and education savings accounts has public educators on alert.

Despite a promise of another 5-percent pay raise from Gov. Justice and Republican legislative leadership before the 2018 midterms and throughout this past regular session, teacher and service personnel unions aren’t taking their chances on what else could be included in a special session.

They held a news conference Wednesday to call for the special session to be canceled.

“It is fiscally irresponsible to spend taxpayer money on a special session that blatantly ignores the will of the public,” American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia president Fred Albert said. “Therefore, we call on Gov. Justice to cancel the special session on education and allow any proposed reforms to be debated fully during the next regular session of the Legislature in January 2020.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Justice had yet to amend the special session call to add other topics beyond education.

Carmichael says he and other lawmakers are waiting on that announcement. He says he expects bills that were vetoed on technical grounds to be included.

“At this point, they have not been added to the call but they will be. I am confident they will be. They have to complete that action downstairs and I’m sure they will be able to complete that task. If they can’t, that’s a problem,” Carmichael said.

Representatives from the Governor’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment by phone or email about the upcoming special session or amending the call.