The Republican-controlled West Virginia Senate passed its education overhaul bill Monday, about a week and a half after the bill’s proponents introduced it and revealed that it would include several provisions opposed by many public school teachers, as well as a promised pay raise.
Monday’s 18-16 vote mirrored previous votes to advance Senate Bill 451 out of committee and to reject Democrats’ proposed changes. All 14 Senate Democrats, plus Sens. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, and Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, voted against it. As in the prior votes, one more Republican changing sides could have killed the bill on a tie.
The bill now goes to the House of Delegates, and Gov. Jim Justice said last week that he would veto the Senate’s version.
The bill would legalize charter schools in West Virginia; give up to 2,500 students $3,200 annually to receive private, online and home-school education through “education savings accounts”; and give public school workers across-the-board pay raises.
The bill would also mean:
- Public schools would have more money to hire counselors, social workers, psychologists and other school support workers.
- Math teachers would get higher pay raises.
- County boards of education could pay teachers in “critically needed” or hard-to-fill subjects and geographic areas more than other teachers. There would no longer be a provision to keep some counties’ pay from greatly exceeding pay in other counties.
- County school boards could downplay or disregard years of experience in deciding which workers to lay off or transfer to other jobs.
- Workers would have to annually re-agree to have part of their paychecks deducted to pay union dues.
- Teachers who don’t teach for all the days in their annual contracts because of a strike would see pay for those days withheld.
- Schools couldn’t take part in extracurricular activities, including sports, on instructional days canceled because of strikes.
- School boards could raise their regular levy property tax rates to a maximum set in the bill if they get approval from voters, just like voters must currently approve boards’ proposed excess levy property tax increases.
- Counties with growing local property tax revenue wouldn’t see their state school aid funding further reduced because of this growing local revenue.
The legislation also has a non-severability clause, which could rescind the employee raises and all other provisions if the bill becomes law and any part of it is later overturned in court.
Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, criticized Republicans’ inclusion of raises in the bill.
Republican leaders, including Justice and Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, pledged to provide the raises about a month before the November election, when voters decided to preserve Republican majorities in the Legislature despite the activism of school workers involved in last year’s historic, statewide public school employee strike.
“It’s a deceitful way for us to figure out a way to not give the teachers and the service personnel the promised raise,” Unger said, alleging that is the bill’s purpose. He said “deceit” multiple times.
“I saw, Mr. President,” Unger said. “You stood right there with the governor. You promised it.”
As he has in the past, Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, raised constitutional concerns on the Senate floor Monday.
Woelfel quoted part of the state constitution: “No independent free school district, or organization shall hereafter be created, except with the consent of the school district or districts out of which the same is to be created, expressed by a majority of the voters voting on the question.”
The bill would allow charter schools, which would be free of numerous regulations that existing public schools are under, to form without voters’ approval, and over the objection of the locally elected school board. A newly created, unelected state commission could even overrule a board’s objection to one of its schools becoming a charter school.
But Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said, “I do not believe this bill creates a school district.” He said districts have taxing power and an elected board, neither of which applies to charter schools.
Trump noted that another section of the constitution says the Legislature shall make “suitable provision” for “the organization of such institutions of learning as the best interests of general education in the state may demand.” He said he considers charter schools as such organizations.
He also noted that another section of the constitution says: “The school districts into which the state is divided shall continue until changed pursuant to act of the Legislature.” He also read the next line: “The school board of any district shall be elected by the voters of the respective district.”
Woelfel compared the bill to the RMS Titanic, which struck an iceberg and sank in 1912, and noted that the passenger liner’s captain went down with his ship. This elicited some laughs in the chamber.
Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, used a different Titanic reference in support of the bill.
“Multiple breakdowns in a system require multiple repairs,” Tarr said, “not rearranging curtains on a Titanic that holds our children.”
The bill seemed headed for defeat last week in the Senate Finance Committee, as opponents had a majority there. But Carmichael and other Senate leaders used a rare parliamentary maneuver to turn the entire Senate into a “Committee of the Whole,” bypassing the Finance Committee.
Three senators requested a ruling from Carmichael on Monday on whether they could be excused from the final vote under the Senate’s conflict-of-interest rules. Carmichael said all three were members “of a class and will be required to vote.”
Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, requested it because he’s the administrator of a private school, Victory Baptist Academy, in Beaver.
Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, requested it without stating a reason. His wife is a Kanawha County Schools employee.
Mann requested it because his wife is a public school administrator.
No senators had requested one of these Senate Rule 43 exemptions from previous votes on the bill. Rule 43 requires every senator to vote “unless he or she is immediately and particularly interested therein, meaning an interest that affects the member directly and not as one of a class, or the Senate excuses him or her.”