W.Va. Senate passes House education bill

APPROVED — Senators vote Monday night on HB 206, the education omnibus bill passed June 19 by the House of Delegates. -- Steven Allen Adams

CHARLESTON — Bringing the special session on education betterment to all but an end, the West Virginia Senate passed the House of Delegates’ remake of the state Senate’s education reform package

The senate gaveled in Monday afternoon to consider House Bill 206, the 155-page education omnibus bill passed June 19. The vote was 18 for and 16 against.

“This is a historic day for the State of West Virginia,” said Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson. “We’ve made a massive investment in our traditional public education system, as well as providing choice and flexibility for our parents, students, and teachers. This a moment we will mark as a turning point in the educational delivery mechanism of our state.”

HB 206 replaced Senate Bill 1039, the Student Success Act, that passed June 3. Instead of passing the Student Success Act, the House chose to develop its own omnibus bill, removing several items in the Senate’s bill, including anti-strike provisions aimed at discouraging work stoppages by teachers.

The House bill also makes substantive changes to the Senate’s provision for public charter schools, allowing for a three-school charter pilot starting in 2021, with three more charters after 2023 and three more every three years after that.

Carmichael said that the majority of the Republican Senate caucus supported HB 206 as is. The bill is viewed as a compromise between the positions of the Senate, the House, and Gov. Jim Justice who called the special session on education betterment March 9.

“The primary objective of this special session was to pass education reform,” Carmichael said. “We just achieved that tonight. We’re thrilled about it. It’s been in the works in this state for more than 30 years. People have talked about doing it, and you just witnessed this legislature deliver that monumental achievement.”

Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, called the process that resulted in HB 206 broken.

“We can have reform, we can have relevant reform, but this is smoke and mirrors,” Prezioso said. “I’m not proud of the way we came to the end of this process. There are things that work, but education is a moving target. People want reform, teachers want reform, but reform doesn’t mean you need to come up with a new identity.”

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said that HB 207 was a different bill than what the Senate passed three weeks ago and Senate Bill 451 — the first Senate education omnibus bill that died in the House during the 2019 regular session — but its goal and intent was the same.

“What we have today is a very different bill than what we began with months ago, but it retains the essential goals,” Rucker said. “Ultimately this is a bill for the betterment of education. Change is difficult, but as the expression goes, ‘no pain no gain.'”

In order to pass HB 206 in one day, the Senate needed a supermajority of 28 senators to agree to suspend the constitutional provisions requiring a bill to be read on three separate days. Of the body’s 34 members, 32 agreed to suspend the rules except for state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley.

Senate Democrats introduced eight amendments Monday, including amendments to create a grant program for vocational and technical education in middle schools, to attempt to limit charter schools to low-performing parts of the state, and to allow a county-wide vote on charter schools. Democrats also attempted to remove public charter schools from the bill completely.

“The public doesn’t want charter schools,” said state Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha. “This has been debated. It was debated during the regular session. It was debated again; this idea of charter schools being struck out…What we’re voting on here is the privatization of public education.”

“I’m totally in favor of having public schools be able to be more flexible and innovative,” Rucker said in response to Lindsay. “That doesn’t exclude providing an option through charter schools…I believe in giving the counties a choice. I believe in strengthening them to be able to do more.”

HB 206 includes a number of provisions for increased funding in schools. These include funding counties with smaller student populations at a floor of 1,400 students, increasing the foundation allowance in the student aid formula from 70.25 percent to 71.25 percent, and giving county school boards their state aid share in the form of block grants.

Teachers benefit directly HB 206. It includes the 5 percent average pay raise for teachers and school service personnel — their second 5 percent raise in two years. The bill also includes $300 per teacher for faculty senate funds, salary bumps for math and special education teachers, and allows county boards of education to provide additional compensation for teachers at schools with high turnover or hard to staff subject areas. Teachers would also get a $500 bonus for missing less than four days of leave.

For students wanting to become teachers, HB 206 includes updates to the Underwood-Smith teaching scholarships, including a loan repayment program. These scholarship and loan repayment programs would be for students seeking to teach in high-demand fields, such as math or for school counselors. The scholarship would pay a student $10,000 annually for four years and agree to work in the state for five years. The loan repayment program would erase a student’s debt as long as they work in the state for every two years that a repayment award is received.

Besides charter schools, HB 206 includes other school choice options for parents. It expands the West Virginia National Guard Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy, adding an additional site in Fayette County. It allows counties to develop open enrollment policies allowing a student in one county to attend school in another county.

One of the areas of agreement between legislative Republicans and Democrats on education reform includes wraparound services for students with emotional or developmental needs. HB 206 includes more than $30 million for putting more mental health professionals — counselors, psychologists, and nurses — in schools. The funding will allow for five mental health professionals per every 1,000 students. The bill also requires counselors to spend 80 percent if their time in direct counseling — up from 75 percent previously.

With the passage of HB 206 by the House and Senate, the bill now goes to the governor’s desk. Justice has expressed support for the bill in a tweet Monday night.

“I applaud the (Senate) for passing the education bill tonight,” Justice said. “This is the correct resolution that aids our teachers, students, and all those in the education community and I look forward to signing it.”

A group of House Democrats released a statement Monday night calling on Justice to veto the bill. The unions for teachers and school service personnel have remained opposed to the bill. West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said his union was reviewing its options, including taking legal action and opposing lawmakers who supported HB 206 in the 2020 elections.

“I’m very disappointed that they chose not to listen to the educators of West Virginia,” Lee said. “The educators and the public across West Virginia repeatedly said they didn’t want charter schools, yet that’s what we did.”

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