W.Va. House Passes Education Reform Bill, SB 451 Heads Back to Senate

Feb 14, 2019

Updated on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019 at 6:54 p.m.

The West Virginia House of Delegates has passed its version of a long, sweeping and controversial education reform bill. The proposal, which calls for teacher and school service pay raises, but also other ideas opposed by public educators such as charter schools, is a stripped-down version of the measure the Senate passed last week.

The House approved its version of Senate Bill 451 on Thursday, Feb. 14, on a 71-29 vote. The House’s version calls for teacher and school service pay raises and allowing for two pilot charter schools.

The version of the bill that cleared the House of Delegates Thursday was based on a strike-and-insert that cleared the chamber’s education and finance committees during the past week.  

Following amendments on the House floor Wednesday, the bill allows counties to call for levy hikes with voter approval during a general election and provides for a $1,000 annual bonus for school employees who miss four or fewer days. The House also tweaked qualifications that would be considered in a reduction in force, an alteration that has appeased leaders of educator unions to some degree.

Another amendment adopted Wednesday would put a law enforcement officer in every school in the state.

One key component of the Senate’s approved version of the bill, education savings accounts, was stripped from the House Education Committee’s proposal -- an omission that held up throughout the lower chamber’s consideration of the measure.

Another provision in the Senate's version of the bill that was taken out in the House Education Committee -- and remains omitted -- was a non-severability clause. That clause would cause the entire bill to become null and void should any part of it be challenged and overturned in court.

Despite all of the changes since passing the Senate, most House Republicans voted in favor of the bill.

“I knew, and you all know, there's no perfect bill, and we didn't come up with a perfect bill,” Del. John Mandt, R-Cabell, said on the house floor. “We didn't come out with a bad bill either. What I feel is important, we came out with a fair bill. We're coming out with something that's fair. There's give and take on two sides. I don't care what relationship we're in -- work, family, friendships --  anything you have, we're not going to get it all.”

However, three Republicans -- Dels. Jim Butler (Mason), Tony Paynter (Wyoming) and Pat McGeehan (Hancock) -- broke from their party and voted no on the House’s version of Senate Bill 451.

McGeehan said he voted against the bill because of his concerns over its constitutionality.

“The single object provision that was stuck in our state constitution was put there precisely to preclude and prevent situations that we are now facing -- where we have to struggle and weigh between some sort of greater good or picking between the lesser of two evils,” McGeehan said.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey wrote an opinion stating the bill was in the confines of the state’s foundational law.

Democrats, though, were more divided -- with 26 members voting in support of the bill and 15 opposed.

Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said the bill is now more palatable to members who were previously opposed.

“We have taken a bill that came over to us from the Senate as an unwieldy monstrosity, and we have turned it into a workable piece of legislation. That's exactly what we were all sent here to do, and all of us helped in that,” Doyle said. “There are still a couple of things in this bill that I don't like, but there's much more in it that is good for us.”

Other Democrats remain staunchly opposed to the bill in its current form -- with many steadfast in their aversion to charter schools. Del. Cody Thompson, a teacher from Randolph County, is one of them.

“The teachers of this state, the service personnel of this state have overwhelmingly said ‘We do not want charter schools. Do not try to bribe us. We don't want it,’” Thompson said. “I have a problem with passing legislation that directly affects an occupation where people say they don't want part of that legislation.”

Along the bill’s winding path, teachers and their unions have fought against many of the Senate’s original proposals -- namely charter schools -- but also other aspects of the bill.

Members of teachers and school service personnel unions -- from the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association -- authorized their leaders last weekend to call a work stoppage if and when they feel it necessary.

“There's a lot of positives in the bill. There is some things that we don't like. But now, the process really begins -- and we'll see what comes out of the Senate and the House committee assignment,” West Virginia Education Association president Dale Lee said, predicting a conference committee will ultimately tailor the measure.

Lee also stated he feels the Senate will try to reinstate components of the bill that educators oppose -- further leaving its fate in question.

But Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, sees the need for a give and take with the bill.

“You've got a guaranteed pay raise, payment for your sick days, tax credits for your expenditures -- all of these great things. And then over here, you're opposed to the potential of maybe one day -- if the community authorizes it -- there might be an option for parents,” Carmichael said. “So people, just on its face, say [that position] doesn't make sense.”

Carmichael -- both before the 2018 midterm election and during this legislative session -- has stated he is committed to providing for another average 5 percent pay increase for teachers and school service personnel.

Senate Bill 451 now heads back to the upper chamber. Given the differences between the respective Senate and House offerings, the bill is likely headed to a conference committee -- where a few lawmakers from each chamber will hash out the discrepancies.

The Senate could also amend the bill once again and send it back to the House, where the conference committee could be established if they don’t approve that would-be version.