Updated: Feb. 4, 2019 at 10:40 p.m.
The West Virginia Senate has passed a sweeping and controversial bill that seeks to overhaul the state’s public education system. The measure’s fate is unclear in the House of Delegates. Whether teachers will strike in response to its passage in the Senate remains to be seen.
Coming in at 135 pages, Senate Bill 451 ties teacher and school service personnel pay raises to a long list of proposals that public educators and their unions oppose. Those include the establishment of charter schools, education savings accounts, forcing members to sign off annually on the deduction of union dues and denying teachers pay during a strike.
The bill also includes a non-severability clause, which means that should any part of the bill be struck down in a court challenge, the entire measure would be null and void.
The bill was passed on a 18-16 vote. Republican Sens. Bill Hamilton (Upshur) and Kenny Mann (Monroe) broke with the majority party to side with Democrats.
"There are very few moments and the life of a public servant that we and in the Senate or in the House -- when you cast a vote -- you know you have set a course for absolute positive change in the state. Many of the bills that we see come through are code changes and relatively small items and so forth," Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson) said at a news conference following passage of Senate Bill 451.
Carmichael has been a champion of the bill since its unveiling in the Senate Education Committee.
"This is a bill that you were here today to witness that fundamentally changes the lives and the prospects and the opportunities for our students, teachers and parents in this state to take us from last place to first place," he said.
But Democrats in the Senate had fought to strip the bill down to just pay raises for teachers and service personnel.
"Every issue was debated three or four or five or six times. We probably repeated ourselves a lot. But I'll give give my Democratic caucus a lot of credit in that they put a lot of hours into to the research and tried to intelligently debate the issues and things of that sort," Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso said following the bill's passage. "People were listening out there. I think that they'll see that we tried to do the best we could and tried to make this bill better. But it was destined for an 18-16 vote from the very beginning."
Sens. Rollan Roberts (R-Raleigh), Corey Palumbo (D-Kanawha) and Mann all asked for a ruling from Senate President Carmichael on whether they should be exempted from voting on the bill given potential conflicts of interest — based on the chamber’s Rule 43. All were determined to be part of a class and, therefore, able to cast votes on the measure.
Throughout a series of procedural votes in the Senate, Hamilton (who has a pro-union record) and Mann (a substitute teacher and former member of the Monroe Co. Board of Education) voted to slow the bill’s progress and in favor of amendments that Democrats proposed. All those amendments failed on 18-16 votes.
The legislation took an unorthodox path through the Senate. After originating in the Senate Education Committee, the bill was considered by the chamber’s 34-member Committee of the Whole, in lieu of a second reference to Finance. The Senate has established a Committee of the Whole only three other times in history -- in 1917, 1961 and 1974.
At a news conference last week, Gov. Jim Justice said he would veto the bill. But with only a simple majority from both the House (51 of 100 members) and Senate (18 of 34 members) needed to override a gubernatorial veto, Carmichael has already planned to pursue that route if necessary.
Leaders of educator and service personnel unions -- including the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association -- have announced that local chapters will vote this week on whether to authorize a work stoppage should they feel it necessary. The unions are also planning a statewide meeting in Flatwoods on Saturday, Feb. 9.
With the bill now headed to the House of Delegates, its fate remains unknown.
Some House Democrats have joined teachers and union officials at various events around the Capitol in recent weeks and the minority caucus’ leaders have said they are opposed to Senate Bill 451 in its current form.
“While we are always willing to work in a bipartisan manner to improve educational outcomes in our state, we are against the omnibus bill in its current form. There are some good aspects to it, but they are outweighed by the bad parts of it,” House Minority Leader Tim Miley (D-Harrison) said.
Speaker Roger Hanshaw (R-Clay) issued a statement last week expressing only a commitment to pay raises and funding for the Public Employees Insurance Agency -- a promise made by Gov. Justice and other Republican leaders a month ahead of the 2018 midterms.
On Monday -- following passage in the Senate -- Hanshaw reiterated that position.
“As we have said repeatedly, improving the compensation and benefits of our state’s teachers, service personnel and public employees so that they are competitive with neighboring states and the private sector is and continues to be an absolute top priority for House leadership this session,” Hanshaw said. “The House remains completely committed to addressing pay and benefits for all state workers and school employees."
But where the Senate Bill 451 winds up from here remains to be seem -- based on House leadership's position as of its passage in the upper chamber.
“In the coming days, the House will take a serious, deliberate look at the bill that passed the Senate and we will begin consideration of these proposals in a manner that respects all who might be affected by it,” Hanshaw said. “It is my hope that our citizens will be patient and respect this process as we move forward with an open discussion on how to best improve our state’s education system for all involved.”
The House of Delegates is set to receive the Senate's message on the bill Tuesday.