Union heads want education session nixed

CHARLESTON — West Virginia union leaders called Wednesday for an upcoming special legislative session on education to be canceled as lawmakers are expected to resurrect proposals that landed the state in a two-day teacher strike earlier this year.

The heads of unions representing teachers and school service workers said at a news conference that education measures were being fast-tracked behind closed doors without their input. When asked when they had their last meaningful discussion with Republican leaders in the GOP-controlled legislature, the union leaders laughed.

“There is no need to rush through an ill-conceived plan that will harm our students and our state,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association. “Take time to understand the issues, bring in the stakeholders and focus on the points that we all agree will make our schools better and our students more successful.”

The House and Senate were set to reconvene next week to deal with education but a Senate spokeswoman says they instead will be working on bills that were vetoed. She says education legislation will be taken up in June, further fueling fears that the timing of the legislative overtime will dampen the effect of another teacher strike.

Teachers launched a two-day walkout in February over a bill that tied a pay raise to the formation of the state’s first charter schools and education savings accounts that would help parents pay for schools. The bill eventually failed but was seen by educators as retaliation for last year’s nine-day strike across West Virginia over raises and health insurance.

Republican Gov. Jim Justice called the special session after the legislature failed to agree on education measures before the regular session ended in March. Justice ordered lawmakers to go out and seek input from teachers and parents before returning. Public forums on education were held statewide.

Lawmakers and education officials have since been jockeying for their proposals.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who pushed hard for charter schools and education saving accounts during the regular session, has made clear that he will again back those measures when lawmakers return next month.

Senate Democrats have released their own agenda, which includes putting full-time mental health professionals in schools, improving pay for teachers, expanding vocational education to middle schools and more.

A Department of Education report released at the end of a series of education forums said policymakers must address the consequences of poverty and the opioid crisis on students. The report came out against education savings accounts over concerns they could benefit rich families and said any charter schools should be limited in number and overseen by local education boards.

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