At the midway point of the 2019 legislative session, legislative leaders offered divergent views Thursday on where the session stands, particularly on the Senate’s omnibus education bill.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said the idea that Senate leadership is pushing radical, anti-public schools measures in the bill (Senate Bill 451) is unfounded.
“Charter schools have been tried in 44 other states,” he said during the West Virginia Press Association’s annual legislative breakfast. “Why can anyone say it’s a bad idea to provide an option that’s enabled in 44 other states?”
He also responded to criticism that the bill is designed to weaken public schools by diverting funding to private and charter schools.
“We’re not taking money out of the public school system by authorizing an option that might lead to charter schools,” he said.
After passing the Senate by a narrow and partisan 18-16 margin, the bill is undergoing significant revision in the House of Delegates. On Thursday, Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said he hopes the Senate bill will serve as a vehicle for education reform, and called for legislators to avoid the partisanship that has divided Congress.
“Far too often, members of our society take for granted what goes on in the Capitol, and take it as an extension of what goes on in Congress,” he said.
Carmichael earlier conceded that the House will likely dramatically change the bill, but said they should not lose sight of its ultimate intent of improving education outcomes.
“It will change. It will evolve. We understand that,” he said.
House and Senate minority leaders, meanwhile, said the education bill is misguided, and does not address the real issues affecting education, including the issue of at-risk children who have behavioral problems or come from dysfunctional households.
“We have to get more resources to helping at-risk kids achieve,” said Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, a retired career educator.
House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said Senate leadership deserves credit for trying to improve education, but said the Senate bill misses key points of why the education system is failing.
He also questioned how the 133-page bill materialized with little or no input from stakeholders: “There needed to be a lot more effort to reach out to teachers, to find out what their problems are.”
Prezioso also called out Gov. Jim Justice for his lack of leadership on the issue, contending that Justice came to Charleston for one day to declare the bill “a mess,” and then, in Prezioso’s words, “went back to The Greenbrier.”
“The governor should be here daily taking the bull by the horns,” Prezioso said. “The governor needs to be here to make this happen. If not, we’re going to fight back and forth.”
Also during the legislative breakfast:
n Hanshaw said he is pleased with legislation advancing in both houses to improve broadband internet access, revamp foster care, and enhance workforce training at the community college level.
“We are a state in transition,” said Hanshaw, in his first session as speaker. “Too often, the urgent things in our society crowd out the important things.”
n Carmichael said that while the Legislature has gone from facing a $400 million state budget deficit two years ago to a $200 million surplus today, legislators will continue to be prudent when it comes to state spending.
“We know it might turn the other way, so we will be responsible in preparing a budget,” he said of the current upturn in the state economy.
Prezioso, a former Finance Committee chairman, also called on legislators to avoid the temptation to create too many new spending initiatives during good economic times.
“We’ve got to be really cautious about how we spend our money, what we put into our base budget,” he said.
n Miley said that as it attempts to attract young people to move to the state, the Legislature should always consider what message it is sending when it takes up divisive legislation, citing recent debate in House Government Organization Committee over a proposal to overturn municipal anti-discrimination ordinances.
“I think we need to be careful about what we do, and the messages it sends about our state,” he said. “Who are we trying to attract here, and what are we doing that might repel them?”
To that end, Miley said he would like to see the Legislature at least discuss legalization of recreational marijuana, saying it would send the message that West Virginia is forward-thinking.