CHARLESTON – The state Senate unanimously has passed a bill meant to increase the number of West Virginia students gaining career education and workforce training.
Senate Bill 1, also called the Advanced Career Education (ACE) program, passed by a 34-0 vote Jan. 23. The Senate passed an almost identical bill last year, but it didn't advance out of the House of Delegates.
“There are very few days where you absolutely get excited and know that what you have done in this legislative body will change the face and the trajectory of the economy of West Virginia and the lives of the people that this bill is intended to help,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael said. “This bill today, Senate Bill 1, provides ‘last dollar in’ for community and technical education for West Virginians.
"It provides for the employers of West Virginia a drug-free, trained workforce. And, it empowers our people of this state – in which we have low workforce participation and some of the lowest educational attainment levels in America. This bill addresses both of those issues and changes the face of West Virginia forever.”
The bill would create an Advanced Career Education (ACE) program that will be required to provide a curriculum that leads to an associate’s degree or advanced certification in a field the state Department of Commerce has determined is an area of workforce need. In addition, it creates the West Virginia Invests Grant Program, which will provide recipients with a grant to cover the “last dollar in” of tuition at one of the state’s community and technical colleges if the student meets certain conditions including maintaining a minimum grade point average, completing a number of volunteer hours per semester, and passing a drug test.
It also requires the student to live in West Virginia for two years after completing the program, or repay the grant back to the state.
After the bill passed, members of the Senate, state business leaders and education leaders hailed the move.
“Anyone who knows about the problems in West Virginia realizes our terribly low workforce participation rate is one of the biggest problems facing West Virginia right now, and this bill is a big step forward in addressing that,” Senate Minority Whip Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said. “I think that President Carmichael knows that his Democrat colleagues, when you’ve got an idea that’s going to push the state forward and we agree will help, we’re right there with him to help it forward.
"This is a big step forward for the state. I’m hopeful the House will follow our lead and pass the bill this year.”
Dr. Sarah Armstrong Tucker, Chancellor of the West Virginia Community and Technical College System, said the bill will help students realize the cost of community and technical college is not something that should scare them.
“I could not be more excited to be here today, and I thank each one of you for your votes today," Tucker said. "It really is a big change for the state of West Virginia.
“Our community and technical colleges provide a world-class education across the state. Last year alone, they worked with 622 companies. We have almost 800,000 clock-hour trainings specifically developed for the companies. What we don’t have are people in seats. We don’t have that because they’re scared of the cost of going to college. This program will allow our students to know they can go to college, that it’s affordable, and that they can get a job at the end of the tunnel.”
West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts also praised the passage of the bill.
"This is a fantastic bill that will help boost the lives of so many hard-working West Virginians," Roberts said. "I commend the entire West Virginia Senate and the strong bi-partisan support this bill received today."
Roberts said West Virginia has the lowest labor force participation rate in the nation and ranks near the bottom among states in education attainment.
"This will help make a significant improvement in West Virginia's labor force participation rate by making community and technical education attainable for so many of our fellow West Virginians," he said. "We encourage the House to immediately move this bill forward. The unanimous and bipartisan support it received today in the Senate demonstrates that this is a fantastic idea that has broad support."