Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, did the right thing by releasing the GOP-controlled chamber’s new effort on overhauling West Virginia’s education system well in advance of Saturday’s special session.
However, there are still too many questions heading into a possible one-day session that doesn’t involve the House of Delegates and will see the Senate attempt to suspend rules to get the overhaul passed.
For instance, education savings accounts, a type of voucher, which would provide public money for students to attend private schools or homeschool, aren’t a part of this new bill. That would seem like a relief to public educators, but Carmichael has said he might introduce a separate bill Saturday to address that issue. The details of that proposal were just released Wednesday. To try and ram that through in a single day seems like a bad-faith tactic.
As for the bill that everyone knows will be discussed, it’s difficult to know what to make of it. It includes the promised pay raise for public teachers and school service personnel, and tightens some aspects of the bill introduced in the regular legislative session (Senate Bill 451) that were concerning. However, it opens up some of the most contentious parts of SB 451 even further.
During the regular session, the GOP-controlled House and Senate negotiated on the number of charter schools that would be allowed under a pilot program. The lowest number at one point was two, and the maximum before the House killed the bill was seven or eight.
The “Student Success Act,” as Carmichael has dubbed it, would allow unlimited charters. It also would, in some instances, take approval of opening a charter school away from county school boards and place it with the state Board of Education or state universities.
The concern about charter schools is that they are funded by money that would go to public schools and don’t have to meet state teacher certification or certain other employment requirements. Allowing an unlimited number of such ventures and giving them the option to appeal to the state if a county board doesn’t want a charter to open doesn’t allay any of those worries. Perhaps this is intended as a starting point for negotiations, but can something so critical really be hammered out in one day?
The Student Success Act is set up so that changes would not go into effect next school year, as originally planned, but in 2020-21. Does that mean teachers don’t get the raise they were promised until 2020? In his statements, Carmichael has been somewhat vague on what pushing the date back by a year really means. This is another area that needs to be clarified.
There’s a lot more in this bill, some good, some bad and some still a little confusing. We’re not against changing the state’s approach to education, and the new bill does seem to open up avenues for more funding for public schools and higher pay (if a district can afford it) for teachers in subjects where there is a shortage. But that has to be viewed in contrast with what public schools could lose if enrollment and funding drop because of students transferring for expanded school options, including charter schools or homeschooling.
Whatever the Senate passes, it won’t be taken up by the House of Delegates immediately. House officials say the full body isn’t planning to meet in special session until June 17, during interims. So, it would seem, there’s plenty of time for debate, even if the Senate is able to suspend rules and get a lot of legislation through.
Just don’t rule out any surprises on Saturday.