Final passage seems likely for West Virginia’s omnibus education bill, which has dominated education debate since January and, although greatly amended since, at one point caused the state’s second public school worker strike in as many years.
The bill would legalize charter schools, raise public school workers’ pay, increase public school funding more generally and allow students to attend public schools in counties they don’t live in, if the receiving county’s board of education approves.
The school board of the county losing the student no longer would have a say.
Shortly after the House of Delegates passed House Bill 206, its version of the legislation, late Wednesday, Gov. Jim Justice tweeted his support. He’d previously criticized charter schools and bundling the school worker raises he promised a month before the November election into an omnibus bill, like the House and Senate each did.
“I’m thrilled that the House took a major step toward building new opportunities for our children,” Justice tweeted at about 11:30 p.m. Wednesday. “Today all of us should be proud with the progress we’re making towards helping our children and our education community.”
HB 206 differs significantly from Senate Bill 1039, which was passed earlier this month by senators but not acted on in the House.
Regardless, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said Senate Republicans support HB 206.
“We’re certainly not going to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good,” Carmichael said. “Conceptually, we can live with this.”
He said he probably would call the Senate back into the special session on education next week.
Barring possible technical issues that might need to be fixed, he said, he wants the Senate to pass the bill without further amendments and, possibly, pass other bills the House has passed, and then end the special session.
“I want to thank the House for the hard work that they’ve done on this bill,” Carmichael said, “and compliment them and the Governor’s Office in supporting the substantive change in West Virginia education delivery that was initiated by the Senate.”
“It’s funny, on West Virginia Day here, it’s a historic moment for our state, in terms of education improvement,” he said. He said the bill provides historic investment in public education, while also providing “some school choice and options for supporting the concept that one size doesn’t fit all.”
After the House passed HB 206 on Wednesday, Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association union, said, “The losers in this were the students of West Virginia.”
“Our people have made it clear,” Lee said. “I don’t care if it’s one charter school; we’re against it. We believe that every child in West Virginia deserves a great quality education, not a select few. We say, absolutely no charters in West Virginia.”
SB 1039 would have allowed for unlimited charter schools in the state, almost immediately.
HB 206 would allow for three until July 1, 2023, but then allow three more charter schools every three years after that, with no overall cap as the years roll by.
The House bill also largely nixes the Senate bill’s provision that would have allowed county boards of education to decrease the role seniority plays in employees being laid off or transferred to other jobs.
It also doesn’t include the Senate bill’s anti-strike provisions. The Senate bill would ban county superintendents from closing schools in anticipation of a strike or to help a strike.
SB 1039 also says public worker strikes are unlawful; that school workers may be fired if they strike; that school employees’ pay may be withheld for strike days; and that schools would not be able to take part in extracurricular activities on instructional days canceled because of strikes.
The House didn’t pass, during its reconvening this week for the special session, bills that would give parents money to send their children to private schools and religious schools or home-school them.
Carmichael said he plans to give up on such bills for the special session. One of these voucher programs was included in the first version of the omnibus bill, which died in the regular legislative session.
“We recognize we can’t win every one of these issues,” he said. “We think it’s a valuable tool that should be available to the people of West Virginia, but we recognize that others don’t feel the same way.”
In late January, Justice said he planned to veto the Senate’s first version of the omnibus (Senate Bill 451).
That version included provisions — such as vouchers and requiring school employees to annually recommit to pay union dues, once they’ve opted in — that lawmakers removed after the House killed the omnibus during the regular session. SB 451 died on the first day of this year’s two-day teacher strike.
Justice then called the special session on education.
Early this month, he said, “The pathway right now looks pretty bleak to me,” but he said he didn’t regret calling the session.
“Because I want these people to get their 5 percent pay raise, you know; I promised them they’d get their 5 percent pay raise,” he said. “We’re losing teachers every day, and that’s what I wanted to have happen, and I thought, surely to goodness, if we spend months going through these education forums and everything else, surely to goodness we can figure this thing out.”
House Majority Whip Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said Wednesday that the amendment changing a previously proposed 10 charter schools overall cap to three until 2023, then three more every three years, was “drafted in consultation with our Senate colleagues, as well as the Governor’s Office.”
“The governor has certainly made it very clear he prefers a more gradual, measured approach to the possible authorization by local school boards of public charter schools,” Espinosa said. He said there had been discussions with Senate leaders and Justice over the past few days.