CHARLESTON — The House Finance Committee started consideration of the omnibus education bill today, discussing a new version that bumps a pilot charter school program to five and revives an education savings account provision.
Those provisions, which have received criticism from school employees, were scaled way back in a House Education Committee version of the bill that passed on Friday.
Then they rebounded.
House Education had reduced the number of charters to two. House Finance allows for five, plus the possibility of a sixth if the West Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind would want to convert.
House Education also had ruled out education savings accounts, sometimes described as vouchers, which set aside funding for families moving their children out of public school and into private education. Those returned in the Finance version.
These were just the latest steps in the hokey-pokey of the omnibus education bill.
The 125-page bill that would make a variety of changes to West Virginia’s school system. It would bundle long-promised pay raises with charter schools, a change to authority over local school levies, banking of unused personal days and more.
The House Finance Committee announced three meetings to start its consideration of the bill, which passed the state Senate one week ago.
Discussion began at 2 p.m. today. Another meeting was set for 8 p.m. Monday, and then discussion was to continue at 7 a.m. Tuesday.
That all surrounded two separate public hearings about the broad-ranging bill.
A surge of speakers addressed the bill during the first of the two public hearings.
With each speaker given 70 seconds, the two-hour event was a bit like speed dating with superintendents, teachers and parents speaking for and against the bill. Another public hearing was set for 5:30 p.m. today.
“I’m thankful for being here this morning, realizing how fast 70 seconds goes,” said Fred Albert, president of American Federations of Teachers-West Virginia.
Most speakers said they were against the bill — particularly charter schools and education savings accounts.
“Just because you call it sweeping reform does not make it sweeping reform,” said Karen Nance, a former Cabell County school board member.
But some parents said they are in favor of those school choice provisions and urged their inclusion.
“Parents and students are desperate for change. They are desperate for options and choices,” said speaker Kathie Crouse. “This is your time to make history.”
The bill passed last Monday out of the Senate, where Senate President Mitch Carmichael lauded it as comprehensive education reform.
“Shame on you Mr. Mitch for floating this trial balloon of deception,” said Natalie Laliberty, an elementary school principal in Kanawha County.
Some speakers asked delegates to retain the changes that had been made by the House Education Committee.
“Please, please, keep it intact,” West Virginia state school board President Dave Perry said of that version.
The House has recommended some other significant changes from the Senate version.
A non-severability clause was removed right away. That would have meant the whole bill, including the teacher pay raise would have been struck down if any element were successfully challenged in court.
A ‘paycheck protection’ provision was removed right away too. That would have mandated annual approval for teachers union members to have their dues withheld from paychecks. Unions viewed it as an anti-organized labor provision.
The House Education committee also voted to remove an entire section that detailing the consequences of a work stoppage. Originally, the bill would have withheld pay if a work stoppage closed schools. Extracurricular activities would have been canceled.
The committee altered a section that would have removed seniority as the main factor in job retention. Now seniority is linked to evaluations in those instances.
An amendment passed by the committee would provide money for innovation zones, which are already in West Virginia law but without funding.
Parent David Howell told lawmakers West Virginia’s school system needs to provide more choices.
“You made promises that you would do educational reform in this state,” he said. “I would implore you to pass this bill as handed to you by the Senate.”
Tim Woodward, superintendent of Hancock County schools, said West Virginia needs broader societal changes to help support the school systems.
“We’ve got to come in and comprehensively change our communities. Our communities are hurting,” he said. “Until we face the fact that schools are symptom, not the problem, we’re going to go around and around.”
Debra Sullivan, former principal of Charleston Catholic and now state school board member, argued against including the charter schools and educational savings accounts components.
“Proposals to divert public funding to support private education are wrong,” Sullivan said. “Charter schools are private schools in disguise.”
Mickey Blackwell, president of West Virginia’s elementary/middle school principals association, said the entire bill should be scrapped.
“I cannot change your mind in 70 seconds, but I will tell you this bill is specious and won’t do what it sets out to do,” he said. “Kill this bill. Work on the governor’s proposal.”