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WV House sends Senate new omnibus bill allowing 3 more charters every 3 years

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Education Bill Public Hearing

Education Bill Public Hearing

Harrison County kindergarten reading specialist Tonya Stuart Rinehart covered her mouth with duct tape during her 60 seconds at Wednesday morning’s public hearing on the omnibus education bill in the West Virginia House of Delegates chamber.

The West Virginia House of Delegates passed Wednesday its education omnibus bill (House Bill 206), after replacing its cap of 10 charter schools statewide with a cap of three until July 1, 2023.

But the bill would allow three more charter schools every three years after that.

The number allowed as the years roll by would be unlimited. If the bill ultimately becomes law, these would be the state’s first charter schools.

The final passage vote, after 11 p.m. Wednesday, was 51-47, largely with Republicans for it and Democrats against.

The House then recessed its side of the special legislative session on education. The state Senate, which is also led by Republicans, will now have to decide what to do with the bill.

Both chambers must agree on the same version to send it to Republican Gov. Jim Justice for his signature or veto.

The Senate, which passed its own omnibus version (Senate Bill 1039), also could amend the House bill, further prolonging the special session.

The three charter schools every three years amendment was approved on a largely party-line vote, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed. House Majority Whip Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, who proposed the amendment, said it would allow for a more gradual approach.

The debate on amendments lasted more than 8 hours Wednesday.

Another amendment approved Wednesday nixed the ability of the state Board of Education to turn the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, in Romney, into a charter school.

Delegate Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire, where the schools are located, proposed that change.

Another amendment largely nixed the bill’s earlier provision that would’ve allowed county boards of educations to decrease the role years of experience play in which employees they can lay off or transfer to other jobs.

Delegates Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, Mark Dean, R-Mingo, Cody Thompson, D-Randolph, and Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, proposed that.

Another change added what delegates said was $6 million more in annual funding for student support personnel, like social workers and psychologists.

Dean, who’s vice chairman of the House Education Committee, proposed that. It passed 49-48.

Rejected were proposed amendments from Dean that would have:

n Allowed residents to vote on whether to allow charter schools in their county

n Banned county boards of education from authorizing charter schools until all county board seats held July 1 of this year have been up for re-election

n Removed charter schools from the bill entirely

Delegate Ed Evans, D-McDowell, was among many Democrats who questions the need for charter schools.

“Why can’t we fix what’s wrong in the schools we have?” Evans asked.

Delegate Tony Paynter, R-Wyoming, advocated for the failed amendment that would have delayed charter school authorizations until after more school board elections.

“Then, we know if people outside of Charleston really want charter schools,” Paynter said.

HB 206 also would raise public school workers’ salaries, increase public school funding generally and do many other things.

“A no vote on this is an anti-education stance,” said Delegate Evan Worrell, R-Cabell. “… My kids are in public schools and don’t you dare rob them of this money.”

Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, noted Republican leaders promised the pay raise a month before the election, and it wasn’t promised contingent on anything else coming with it.

“They’re down here fighting,” Caputo said of public school workers. “Fighting for what the three top leaders of this state and others promised them.”

Also passed Wednesday was House Bill 158, which says the state school board would be required to create a rule that holds students accountable for their scores on statewide standardized tests. The bill now heads to the Senate.

The bill would leave it up to the state board to determine what consequences students would face.

The House didn’t take action Wednesday on House Bill 168, which would give parents money to send their children to private schools and religious schools.

HB 168 would provide people and companies tax credits if they donate to nonprofit “scholarship-granting organizations.” Those organizations, in turn, would have to spend at least 90 percent of their annual revenue on paying for children to attend private schools.

The House also didn’t move on Senate Bill 1040, which creates “education savings accounts,” which work similarly to vouchers, but also provide parents taxpayer money to home-school their children.

Public hearing

Before the marathon amendment debate Wednesday, 83 members of the public addressed lawmakers at a 90-minute public hearing.

To the expressed chagrin of many, each speaker was limited to 60 seconds to speak about the education overhaul.

Of the speakers, 70 spoke against the bill, seven spoke in favor. The remaining speakers’ positions were unclear.

After a long stretch of teachers, parents and citizens criticizing the legislation, Tonya Rinehart used what she called a “visual aid” to protest the time limit. She stuck a piece of duct tape to her mouth while the crowded House chamber sat in silence for roughly 50 seconds.

Written on the tape: “88%.” That was a reference to a West Virginia Department of Education report that said 88 percent of 690 comment card responses at education public forums held across the state this spring disagreed with charter schools.

“Who are you listening to?” asked Nicole McCormick, a teacher and union member. “Because you’re not listening to us.”

Several speakers said they have family members with special needs, and argued that charter schools would be used as a means to segregate those children from the rest of the student population.

Some of the supporters of the bill spoke of the need for more choice among parents regarding where their children attend school, and they criticized the department statistic. Among them, Doug Douglass said he is a part of a “silent majority” of parents who favor charter schools.

Around 11 a.m. Wednesday, when the House floor session began, there were about 40 demonstrators outside the House chamber.

“We’re not leaving!” they chanted. Delegates John Shott, R-Mercer, and Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, said early in the day that the chants were interfering with their hearing.

At about 4:50 p.m., about a dozen were left outside the chamber, standing or sitting around in silence. Demonstrators in red and blue shirts still sat in the galleries above the House floor, but there were many empty seats.

Around 8:15 p.m., there were about eight people outside the chamber, two of whom were yelling through rolled up posters. One was Jay O’Neal, the Stonewall Jackson Middle teacher who founded the Facebook page that helped spark and organize the two statewide public school worker strikes in the last two years.

“If you can’t hear us,” some chanted, while others responded “We’ll get louder!”

Around 10 p.m., the state and national presidents of the American Federation of Teachers union issued a joint news release praising the successful amendment that mostly restored employees’ seniority protections. Those protections provide greater insulation to employees from layoffs and job transfers the longer they have worked in the same county.

“For every educator, student, parent and ally who cares about keeping good teachers in West Virginia, this is our victory for today,” said Fred Albert, state AFT president, in the release. “Tomorrow is a new day, and we keep on fighting.”

National AFT President Randi Weingarten said in the release that “while there’s a lot in this bill we don’t like, including charter schools — albeit more limited ones — the fact the House of Delegates rejected a weakening of layoff provisions is vital.”

Around 10:30 p.m., the House galleries were mostly empty, and the chants outside had died.