CHARLESTON – The education omnibus bill that has been the center of attention for the state Senate has passed the Committee of the Whole by a slim margin.
The committee, which was the entire Senate, voted 18-16 to pass the measure Jan. 31 to the full Senate. Republican senators Kenny Mann (R-Monroe) and Bill Hamilton (R-Upshur) voted with Democrats against the bill.
A short time later, Senate Bill 451 (also known as the Comprehensive Education Reform Act) was given its first reading in the Senate. The second reading, scheduled for Feb. 1, is when amendments can be introduced. The debate about the bill Feb. 1 is expected to be interesting.
Democrats have been critical not only of the bill, but also of how the Republican leadership handled it by first sending it to the Education Committee rather than Finance and then sending it to the Committee of the Whole, which is something that has been done twice in state history, the most recent being 1961.
The bill’s slim passage out of the Committee of the Whole came a day after an all-day hearing to discuss the bill. It also followed requests from Gov. Jim Justice and the state Department of Education saying the issues in the bill should be handled in separate piece of legislation rather than in a huge bundled bill.
Some county school boards and teacher’s groups have been critical of the bill as well, hinting that another walkout or even a strike might be on the horizon.
The bill would overhaul the state’s education system. It would provide for additional student support positions, banking of sick days for retirement, a 5 percent average pay raise, legalizing charter schools, providing public funds for educational savings accounts, mandating an increase in property tax levies without a public vote and redirecting public school funds to private and religious schools.
Other provisions that have drawn criticism are one that would withhold teacher pay if schools are closed due to a work stoppage as well as a non-severability clause, which says that if any part of the bill is challenged, the entire act would be voided.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson) stood behind the decision to send it to the Committee of the Whole.
“Providing a world-class education for West Virginia students and children is among the most important functions of state government,” Carmichael said. “Virtually every national entity that ranks student performance has reported poor statistics for our state. There is no question that our educational system needs critical reform, and it needs reform right now.”
Carmichael said the issue required input from all members of the Senate, not just members of the education and finance committees.
“We believed the Committee of the Whole served as the most open, transparent way to conduct the thorough vetting of this piece of important legislation,” he said. “Appropriately, there is tremendous public interest on all sides of this issue – both Republican and Democratic Senators, the West Virginia Department of Education, teachers, administrators, school service personnel, and most importantly, families of children in our public schools.
“We believed this was an issue that should be fully heard and considered in Committee by every member of the Senate and done in the Senate Chamber where there would be more room to accommodate the members of the public.
“This bill will change West Virginia’s future. It will change the education of our children for generations to come. That’s why we took this rare step, and why we believe the full Senate is the best place for the body and the public to consider this bill as it makes its way through the legislative process.”
Democrats disputed that move, calling it “another egregious affront to the legislative process.” They also said Republicans made the rare move because they feared the bill didn’t have enough votes to pass out of the Finance Committee.
“This bill will defund public education as we know it,” Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso (D-Marion) said. “It’s a slap in the face aimed at teachers and school service personnel to punish them for standing up for their rights last year.
“I have never, in all my time in Charleston, seen such a bold-faced, self-serving, and mean-spirited political evasion. It shows total disrespect for the democratic process.”
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw (R-Clay) said his chamber is watching what’s going on at the other end of the state Capitol.
“From the beginning of this session, House leadership has made clear that improving the compensation and benefits for our state’s teachers and school service personnel is a top priority for this legislative session, and our commitment to that goal remains unwavering,” Hanshaw said. “We fully anticipate passing bills to improve compensation for teachers, service personnel and state employees as we move forward with our Fiscal Year 2020 budget process.
“We too have been following developments in the state Senate, and will deliberately review any legislation they send our way. Meanwhile, we continue to have discussions with our members and other interested parties about how best to improve our state’s education system. We have and will continue to accept input from all sides – including teachers, parents, administrators, and teacher and service employee unions.”
Hanshaw said the House will “carefully review” all options.
“We know this is a sensitive topic, and passions are heightened on all sides of these issues,” he said. “It is my hope that we can move forward in a rational and deliberate manner to improve our education system for students, teachers and all involved.”