The West Virginia Senate has adopted an amendment that would allow teachers to be fired or have their pay withheld for going on strike. That change, among others, was made Sunday, June 2, to a long and controversial education reform bill that will be up for a Senate vote Monday.
While teachers had a heavy presence at the Capitol Saturday, that show of force was significantly smaller Sunday as lawmakers arrived at the amendment stage for Senate President Mitch Carmichael’s “Student Success Act,” which is now labeled Senate Bill 1039.
The bill ties pay raises and more school counseling services to charter schools, a change to how a layoffs would be considered and other proposals opposed by teachers.
Amendment that Bans Teacher Strikes Adopted
Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, proposed an amendment that makes striking grounds for terminating a teacher and -- if such teacher continues to be employed -- would allow for the withholding of their pay, prorated for the number of days missed. Additionally, Trump’s amendment would prevent counties from holding extracurricular activities on days when a strike takes place.
In the amendment, as well as a speech on the floor, Trump cited a 1990 state Supreme Court case from Jefferson County, which followed a teacher strike that year. The court found that public employees have no right to strike.
“Part of the problem that we have to address -- I think we have to address, so I hope this body will address -- is the way county boards of education enabled work stoppages or strikes in the last two years,” Trump said on the floor, “unlike what the Jefferson County Board of Education did in 1990, and said ‘No, tomorrow's a school day -- we're having school.’”
While some Democrat argued that teachers have made up days missed by a strike, Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, questioned Trump how the amendment balances the state Constitution guaranteeing a right to “a thorough and efficient system of education” with First Amendment rights to assemble and petition the government afforded by the United States Constitution.
The amendment was adopted on a nearly party line vote, 17-14. Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, joined Democrats in opposing the amendment.
Republican Sens. Mark Maynard (Wayne) and Kenny Mann (Monroe), and Democratic Sen. Bob Plymale (Wayne) were absent from Sunday’s session.
Other Changes to the New Omnibus
The Senate adopted three other changes to Senate Bill 1039. Those proposals were all offered by Republicans.
One amendment, offered by Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke removed the ability for public higher education institutions to authorize a charter school.
Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, proposed an amendment that would allow county school boards to establish a fund from surpluses that special needs students could use outside of the public school setting.
A technical amendment offered by Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, linked up language between Senate Bill 1039 and Senate Bill 1, which provides a “last dollar in” grant program for community and technical colleges and was passed earlier this year.
All three of the amendments were adopted on voice votes.
County Referendum to Approve Charter Schools Defeated
An amendment that would have called on county voters to approve an authorized charter school failed. Sen. Hamilton, who often sides with Democrats on public education issues, offered the proposed change.
“My amendment is based on the meetings that we had through our state. We were told time and time again, the public wants charter schools. And another group says the public doesn't want charter schools,” Hamilton said. “So my amendment is very simple. A charter school, [if] it's being proposed by any one county, it has to be put on the ballot in the said county where their charter schools proposed.”
Rucker, who serves as Senate Education Chair and has also championed charter schools, argued against the amendment.
“Although I do applaud the sentiment behind it, and I am in favor of this, of course, the folks being able to voice their position -- which is one of the reasons we mandated in this bill -- that there will be a public open meeting when considering whether to authorize charter schools,” Rucker said. “I also want point out that this creates a cost and there's no clarity as to who is going to take that cost on.
Rucker also stated that the charter school provision was written was to empower local school boards and that the legislation entrusts them with that ability.
The amendment was defeated on a voice vote.
A bill that would establish education savings accounts -- a voucher-like program that allows for public funds to be spent on some forms of private education -- was read a first time and now advances to the amendment stage.
Justice Meets with Senate Caucuses, Expresses Unhappiness with the Education Session
Republican Gov. Jim Justice met separately with each of the Senate caucuses before Sunday’s floor session. Justice called the special session on education in March, before the end of the regular session.
In speaking to reporters following those meetings, Justice noted some of the issues that public educators have had problems with, including charter schools and how layoffs would be considered under the omnibus bill.
Specifically, Justice, who coaches high school girls basketball in Greenbrier County, said he is opposed to the stopping of extracurricular activities during a strike.
Generally, though, he expressed unhappiness with how the session has progressed.
“I think you have parties that are dug in and I'm not going to be critical or a proponent of either side on this conversation,” Justice said. “I think you've got parties that are absolutely dug in. The ‘why?’ -- I can't answer. I can't really answer the why. But I can tell you that, to me, it's a shame.”
Carmichael said his caucus had a short meeting with the governor that lasted about eight or ten minutes. He took issue with the governor’s stance of not stopping extracurricular activities during a strike.
“What message does that send when one can forego academics and training in your education classes and yet go participate in extracurricular activities? That is the wrong message to send,” Carmichael said.
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, described his group’s meeting with the governor as unexpected and also unusual.
“Our caucus has never refuse talking to the governor. He's welcome in our caucus anytime,” Prezioso said. “We told him, ‘We wish you'd show up more and talk to us and try to take charge of this situation.’”
Prezioso also said Justice told the Democrats he wished the session would come to a stop.
Senate Votes Approaching as House Waits to Reconvene
Senate Bill 1039 will be up for a vote Monday in the Senate.
A bill allowing for education savings accounts, Senate Bill 1040, will be on second reading.
The House of Delegates, which is set to return to action on June 17, will consider what is sent over from the Senate as well as their own education-related proposals.