West Virginia’s special legislative session is set to reconvene 2 p.m. Monday, but the Republican Senate president has said his proposed education legislation may not be ready for perhaps two more weeks.
Though they didn’t express anger or disappointment over it, the House of Delegates’ Republican Education and Finance committee chairmen said they weren’t told ahead of time about the Student Success Act plan that Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, revealed last week.
Carmichael has said the act, like the omnibus education bill that died in this year’s regular legislative session amid a statewide public school workers strike, would lump together the pay raises school workers may want with the charter schools many oppose.
But, in a new development, he said the state and county boards of education would oversee these charter schools.
Meanwhile, the Republican speaker of the House, who didn’t answer questions this past week, is rumored to be pursuing, or rumored to have recently considered, an annihilation of education laws. It’s unclear how long his proposals will take to appear.
Laws protecting school workers’ job protections and other employment rights could be erased, all as part of a push advertised as increasing county school systems’ freedom.
But, if the state Board of Education’s power isn’t simultaneously limited, erasing education laws could instead cede more of the Legislature’s power to that unelected body, which can overrule county boards.
Multiple officials have suggested the special session won’t actually get into education bills, other than perhaps the ones the minority Democrats introduce, until about June — if the session gets into education at all.
Like it has before, the session could recess after Monday and reconvene later, and the upcoming week may only include amending regular session bills that Republican Gov. Jim Justice said he vetoed on technicalities.
Summer is coming. As the school year ends in county after county, so ends school workers’ power to sway legislation with a strike.
A lack of consensus
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, started this past week of session speculation with a surprise.
Through the House spokesman, he sent out a news release Monday saying, “Lawmakers and education officials are nearing consensus on a path forward with education reform that will empower local communities and increase flexibility in the state’s education system.”
Less than half an hour later, the spokesman sent word that Hanshaw and Carmichael had officially called for the session to reconvene this coming Monday.
But, after those announcements from the House, a Senate spokeswoman said the current plan was only to fix the bills Justice vetoed.
Hanshaw, whom the House spokesman said has been sick, didn’t provide further information on his plan for the rest of this week.
Outside of two state Board of Education members and perhaps some state Department of Education staff — state schools Superintendent Steve Paine didn’t return a request for comment — it’s unclear what “education officials” Hanshaw was talking about in the news release when he said they were “nearing consensus” on whatever it was that he wanted, or still wants, to do.
Among the education officials who said they haven’t been in the discussions: the president and executive director of the West Virginia School Board Association; the president, immediate past-president and executive director of the West Virginia Association of School Administrators, the main group representing county school superintendents; and the heads of the major public school worker unions.
On Tuesday, the state school board committee that had added the House and Senate Finance and Education committee chairs as members, plus the Senate minority leader, put off approving recommendations until two days after the upcoming restart of the session.
State board members Tom Campbell and Dave Perry, the board president, said at that meeting that they expected the education part of the session to happen in June, and Campbell said the recommendations could be for “beyond a special session.”
Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion and the Senate minority leader, said after that meeting that he’d heard from Perry about Hanshaw planning some big erasure of education laws.
“Hanshaw wants to take the Legislature out of education,” Prezioso said.
At a Wednesday morning news conference, union leaders cited alternative possible threats:
n a lack of consensus leading to a prolonged special session, costing $35,000 daily merely for per-day pay and expenses for legislators, or
n a secret consensus among the powers-that-be leading to major bills being rushed through a short special session.
Their plea to Justice, who called the session in March: cancel it and sort whatever legislation out when the regular session reconvenes in January.
The response from the governor’s general counsel and House and Senate leaders: the governor legally can’t stop the special session now.
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association union, mentioned the rumored plans to erase much of Chapter 18A, which includes core school employee laws setting things like how much teachers must be paid, and how layoffs and position transfers must be handled.
Hanshaw’s news release had said the still-unnamed “officials hope to have a press conference Wednesday afternoon to unveil further specifics of this plan.”
The afternoon came, and there was still no appearance from these officials. Instead, there was another news release, saying work on legislation was beginning.
“There were some general discussions,” said House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, “about giving all 55 local county boards of education as much flexibility as possible so that they can address the local needs of their education system and not have the Legislature micromanaging from Charleston.”
“There have been some discussions about eliminating Chapters 18 and 18A of the West Virginia State Code, but a number of central figures are not supportive of going down that path ... At the beginning of the week there seemed to be more support for proceeding in that manner than what there is today.”
House Finance Committee Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, said he’s not part of the core group that’s been meeting with Hanshaw on his education plan. But he said he attended a meeting this past week where House lawyers were reviewing Chapter 18A.
“I would say that every article in Chapter 18 and Chapter 18A would need to be looked at if we’re going to give autonomy and flexibility to local school boards and local schools,” he said. “Everything that’s been mandated by the Legislature over the years would need to be looked at.”
As for a timeframe, he said, “I think it’s going to take at least a month, maybe two months. I may be wrong. Or longer, or we could conceptually come up with a bill and then work on it for the next year.”
He pointed to the recent state Department of Education report, which made recommendations that department officials said were informed by several online surveys and eight public forums they hosted across the state to gather input for what should, and shouldn’t, be done in the session.
“Most participants reported opposition to the creation of charter schools in West Virginia,” the report said, “while simultaneously reporting a strong desire to be free from state and local rules and regulations.”
House Education Chairman and House Majority Whip Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said he couldn’t provide many details on what legislation the House will pursue.
He said he sees strong support for more “flexibility” in county school systems’ finances and operations, but it’s another thing “to translate that concept into actual proposed legislation, that our members can read, review and feel comfortable with.”
“I remain hopeful we can take up some reform in June,” Espinosa said. “But it’s too early to say whether that will be feasible or not.”
On Thursday, Carmichael, R-Jackson, announced on MetroNews’ Talkline radio show that, “We are very anxious to launch comprehensive education reform, as we are calling it now, the Student Success Act. We realize there’s not a moment to waste.”
But, he said, this wouldn’t come up this week when the special session resumes. He said the session would reconvene, again, in probably no more than two weeks to run the bill, and the act’s components would be released to the public at some point before then.
Host Hoppy Kercheval asked whether the delay was due to a lack of consensus among the Legislature and Justice.
“Yes, that is indicative of it,” Carmichael said. “But it’s also, I think, more reflective of the fact that there was a real effort, a concerted effort, to reach out to the affected communities, the affected special interest groups, to align their goals and objectives with our Student Success Act.”
The omnibus education bill’s version of charter schools could have circumvented democracy.
But speaking of his new charter school proposal Thursday, Carmichael said, “These are all managed by the county boards of education … If people don’t want them, they just won’t authorize them.”
And he spoke of a kind of flexibility that Householder, the House Finance chairman, said the House is interested in: “block grants.” Householder said part of looking at Chapters 18 and 18A is figuring out what needs to be repealed to make these work.
Carmichael told Kercheval that, “I think this parochial, paternalistic attitude in Charleston that we know what’s best for the individual counties is the wrong way to manage an education system.”
Regarding county school boards handling this financial freedom, Carmichael said, “I trust democracy to put the right people at the local levels in place.”
In a brief interview Thursday with the Gazette-Mail, Carmichael said these block grants won’t replace the state school aid funding formula. Householder said they’ll just allow much more freedom to spend the amount of money the formula calculates a county should receive.
Carmichael said there will be bills other than the Student Success Act, but he plans to make it the main event, including charter schools but also the across-the-board raises, higher pay for math teachers, tax credits for classroom expenses and “more local control.”
He said the charter school proposal will meet all of the state Department of Education’s recommendations for how they should be done, if done at all — except Carmichael said he’s open to considering allowing virtual charter schools, something the department cautioned against.
Otherwise, he said he’s fine with instituting department-suggested requirements the omnibus bill didn’t have, like minimum qualifications for charter school teachers.
But what about that other “school choice” proposal — vouchers for public school alternatives like private schools and homeschooling?
Carmichael said he plans to introduce a bill creating these education savings accounts, but he said he hasn’t fully vetted with Senate Republicans or Senate Democrats “whether that should be in the [main] bill.”
Amid all the talk of the session not dealing with education when it resumes this week, education and pay raises remained the only thing on the governor’s session call. Early Friday evening, he finally announced he had amended the call to allow lawmakers to just fix the vetoed bills — for now.