The West Virginia Board of Education is speaking out against the proposed state constitutional amendment that would take away its final say over educational policies and give it to the state Legislature.
The amendment would mean lawmakers could amend and reject the state school board’s policies, which set what students must learn, how they can be disciplined and many other regulations.
In a voice vote with no dissent, the board approved Wednesday issuing a statement against the proposal. Tom Campbell was the only member absent for the whole meeting.
“The learning is going to be inconsistent, it’s going to be inconsistent when you have a Legislature that changes every two years,” board President Miller Hall said. “Where is the consistency?”
The state board, unlike county boards of education, is unelected, and its members serve nine-year terms. Governors appoint the members, but they must be confirmed by the state Senate.
On Feb. 23, the House of Delegates voted, 95-2, to pass a resolution that would put this proposed amendment before voters.
On March 4, the Senate Judiciary Committee furthered the resolution.
“I don’t think we need to necessarily assign blame to any particular person to say that what we have been doing hasn’t functioned perfectly,” said Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Randolph. “And when things aren’t working as well as they should, sometimes it’s necessary to make changes.”
But that time, Democrats spoke against it. And it hasn’t yet passed the full Senate.
The proposal requires approval by two-thirds of the elected members in each legislative chamber. Republicans have 23 of the 34 Senate seats, so if just one of them joins all the Democrats in voting no, it will fail.
Republican Gov. Jim Justice, who has appointed seven of the board’s nine current members due to prior resignations, can’t veto this resolution.
So if it gets out of the Legislature, it will go to the voters.
“I don’t think the public will quite understand the ramifications of what this amendment would do to public education,” state Schools Superintendent Clayton Burch said. “If at any time you ever thought we were going to welcome politics into our classrooms, this would be it. This is exactly what would happen.”
Heather Hutchens, general counsel for the state Department of Education, which the board oversees, said that “in the 20 years that I have been here, this has been the one bill that has caused me the most concern.”
“I say that meaningfully, I say that from the bottom of my heart because I do think it will fundamentally change what the face of our classrooms can look like,” she said.
Board member Stan Maynard also urged a “Plan B” if the proposed amendment is sent to voters.
“We would need to be very proactive around the state, speaking to any organization that would let us,” he said.
It’s rare for the board to publicly, even just verbally, oppose lawmakers’ actions.
Its constitutional power, as interpreted by the state Supreme Court of Appeals in a series of decisions spanning decades, is so great that it may currently be able to defy education laws that the Legislature passes. But lawyers say this hasn’t been directly tested in court.
Instead, lawmakers annually pass multiple laws affecting education — each chamber even has an Education Committee — and the board routinely changes or adds to its current policies to comply with and flesh out those laws.
Last year, the board did use its policy making power to prohibit fully virtual charter schools, which have a poor academic track record in other states.
This narrowed the impact of the omnibus education law the Legislature passed the year before, which allowed for both physical and virtual charter schools.
This year, Republicans used their new supermajorities in both chambers to pass legislation (House Bill 2012) that specifically legalizes virtual charter schools, including up to two statewide ones that could be approved by a new, unelected board and enroll, combined, up to one out of every 10 public schoolers in the state.
The board didn’t take a stand against that bill Wednesday. Justice has yet to announce whether he will sign or veto it.