On Friday night, the House Education Committee recommended removing from the sweeping education overhaul bill a provision that would give parents public money to private-, online- or home-school their children.
On Monday afternoon, House Finance Committee leaders were suggesting keeping these “education savings accounts,” which full-time public schoolers couldn’t use, in the bill and increasing House Education’s proposed cap on charter schools from two to six.
Then, near the stroke of midnight, House Finance members rejected, in a 13-12 vote, the proposed return of education savings accounts and the increase in the charter schools cap.
House Education voted Friday to recommend a whole new “strike and insert” replacement version of the bill (Senate Bill 451), which the Senate passed last week.
House Finance revealed a different strike and insert version Monday afternoon in a meeting sandwiched between two public hearings the House of Delegates set on the shifting legislation.
The committee reconvened around 8 p.m., after the evening public hearing ended, for a four-hour meeting that concluded with the rejection of the proposed House Finance strike and insert. Delegates Bill Anderson, R-Wood, Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, and Steve Westfall, R-Jackson, broke with the other committee Republicans to join all 10 Democrats on the committee in voting no.
House Finance Vice Chairman Vernon Criss, R-Wood, then successfully moved to adjourn the meeting before any further amendments or other action was taken or considered on the bill.
This rejection was possible because Republicans agreed to reconsider an earlier voice vote that adopted the House Finance strike and insert version. They agreed to this reconsideration after Democrats apparently realized and angrily objected to the fact that they couldn't propose amendments in committee to the House Finance strike and insert version.
The committee reconvenes 7 a.m. Tuesday, and one of those three Republicans rejoining the others could revive the House Finance strike and insert. Alternatively, the committee could amend the House Education version.
"I don't know what I'm planning on doing. I'm tired," Storch said after midnight, upon leaving a quick closed-door meeting with other committee Republicans.
Anderson said he voted no because "we have attended four hours of public hearings today, and people from all over the state came, and I think these amendments would be much better worked in the Finance Committee than on the House floor." Adopting the House Finance strike and insert would've meant having to wait until second reading on the floor of the full House to make further amendments.
He did say county boards of education should be allowed to approve charter schools, and education savings accounts "have the potential to be explored."
Criss said Monday afternoon he hoped to advance the bill out of committee by Tuesday’s end but doesn’t know that it will.
He noted there’s a “major difference” between the versions of the bill the House is considering and the one the Senate passed, which may mean House-Senate negotiations through a conference committee if the Senate doesn’t initially agree to the House’s changes.
“Every day that we delay, not getting this bill done, you’re putting a burden on the budgeting process to get done,” Criss said. “And we are going to finish the budget within the 60 days.”
The annual regular legislative session lasts about 60 business days, but lawmakers can enter an extended session, at cost to the state, to finish the budget bill.
Teacher Amy Neal got some of the rare laughs at the morning public hearing in the House chamber in the Capitol. She said the bill reminded her of a college student running out of quarters to do laundry.
“You throw it all in, the white shirts come out either pink or gray,” said Neal, who’s in her 34th year of teaching and leads the American Federation of Teachers union’s Cabell County branch.
“Just like that laundry,” she said, “this bill needs to be separated.”
House Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, gave each speaker 70 seconds during the two-hour morning public hearing to comment on the expansive, complex bill, cutting their microphone off when they ran over time.
At the subsequent House Finance afternoon meeting, advocates for charter schools and education savings accounts were called upon first to speak and answer questions, and they did so for an extended time. In the evening House Finance meeting, West Virginia University education law and policy associate professor Joshua Weishart spoke at length about possible state constitutional concerns with the bill's proposed charter schools.
About 85 people spoke on the bill in the morning hearing, and it ended before the nine final people who had signed up got their chance. A sign-in sheet at the 5:30 p.m. hearing showed 76 people signed up to speak, the majority of whom wrote they were against the bill.
These are the first public hearings that either side of the Legislature has held on the bill, after Republicans rushed the bill through the Senate.
When House Education passed the bill out of that committee Friday, it recommended significant changes to the Senate version. Among the House Education recommendations that would erase or curtail some of the bill’s most controversial provisions are the following:
- Allow charter schools in West Virginia, but limit them to two statewide and require them to be public elementary school conversions. The Senate version sets no cap.
- Eliminate the Senate version’s education savings accounts provision, which would give parents $3,200 annually per child to provide them public school alternatives. The dollars could fund tutoring and religious schooling, and parents could save it up to fund college.
- Remove the Senate version’s provision that would require school employees to annually re-agree to have part of their paycheck deducted to pay union dues. West Virginia doesn’t require school workers to join unions.
- Nix the Senate version’s withholding of pay for teachers for instructional days they don’t work due to strikes and the Senate’s ban on schools taking part in extracurricular activities on canceled instructional days.
The Gazette-Mail didn’t have time to fully review the rejected House Finance strike and insert version, but known details indicated it would've swung the pendulum back closer to the Senate version. It would've:
- Allow five charter schools, and a sixth if the state Board of Education allows the state Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, in Romney, to become one.
- Allow education savings accounts, but with more eligibility requirements than the Senate version, which banned those with annual household incomes over $150,000 from benefiting and limited the total ESA students to 2,500 but didn’t bar many otherwise. The House Finance strike and insert would limit eligibility to students in several categories, including those who have been victims of harassment, intimidation or bullying and those on Individual Education Plans. Students on IEPs include special education students, including those deemed “gifted,” plus students receiving speech therapy.
- Maintain the Senate version’s ban on schools taking part in extracurricular activities on days canceled due to strikes, but erase the Senate’s pay-withholding provision.
All versions of the bill would provide pay raises for school workers and provide tens of millions more dollars for public schools, including funding an estimated 390 more student support workers, such as social workers and psychologists.
Most speakers criticized the bill. Their points alternated from urging lawmakers to follow House Education’s recommendations, to requesting they instead pass the Senate version, to asking that they shoot down the bill entirely.
Bridgeport High teacher Jenny Santilli was not satisfied even with House Education’s recommended cap of two charter schools.
“Let’s give you two bedbugs for your house and see how that goes,” she said. “Charters and vouchers are vermin and will infest and eat away our public schools.”
She said, “Out-of-state interests have come for our timber, coal oil and gas, and now they want our children.”
Vincent Pinti, one of Santilli’s current students, also spoke against the bill’s charter school and education savings accounts portions.
“We should not be asking for a choice to send our kids to a good school with teachers who are informed and care and are willing to prepare people like me for the 21st-century economy,” said Pinti, who has a physical disability. Instead, he said, sufficient resources should be provided to every school.
He said diverting money to private schools and charter schools “hurts people like me who have to go to public schools when charter and private schools deny us on the basis of expensive accommodations.” He said disabled students shouldn’t be segregated into less regulated schools.
Barry Holstein, a parent, was among those supporting the Senate’s version.
“The freedom to choose is a powerful tool,” Holstein said of charter schools and education savings accounts.
He also supported the bill’s provision allowing county boards of education to downplay or disregard years of experience in choosing which workers they lay off or transfer to other jobs.
He noted a situation that’s been seen in Kanawha County in recent years, when teachers hired on the same date, instead of competing based on their resumes, had to draw pieces of paper and lottery-type balls to determine who would be deemed to have the least seniority and thus the most risk of losing their jobs.