House Finance passes a schools bill, but not the one the chairman wanted

CHARLESTON — Members of the House Finance Committee rallied this morning and voted for a House Education version of a broad-ranging schools bill.

That means the full House of Delegates could get the bill as soon as today, with amendments being offered on the floor as soon as Wednesday. That timeline is not a certainty.

The House Finance Committee voted 17-8 in favor of the bill today. There are 15 Republicans on the committee’s majority. Two Democrats — Mick Bates and Jason Barrett, the committee’s two minority chairmen — voted with them.

The vote happened about 7:45 a.m. today in a fresh meeting. That followed a full Monday of activity that ended at midnight.

During the midnight meeting, the committee voted down a House Finance version, 13-12. Republicans Bill Anderson, Erikka Storch and Steve Westfall voted with the Democrats.

“I was a little disappointed that we did not get our House Finance strike-and-insert out,” said House Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley.

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.

There were a couple of key differences between the versions.

The House Education Committee version had whittled the number of charter schools down to two in a pilot program. The House Finance Committee had that number at five, with the possibility of a sixth.

The House Education version had removed education savings accounts, money set aside for educational use when students move from public school to private education. The House Finance version revived that provision.

Householder said he preferred the version his own committee produced. He suggested Republicans will offer amendments on the House floor to restore more charters and education savings accounts.

“Obviously, I’m in it to win,” he said this morning. “I wanted to make sure our House Finance Committee presented its best work.”

Republicans on the committee caucused privately prior to the midnight vote. Coming out of that meeting, Householder thought he had the votes to pass the House Finance version.

“It was close. We had the votes to pass it,” he said.

But back in open committee, members discussed whether voting down the House Finance version would lead to consideration of the House Education version.

Householder concluded that conversation led to Republicans losing a vote.

“We all know what happened,” he said today. “It was defeated, which left us with the House Education strike-and-insert.”

This morning, Householder asked Republicans to caucus again in his office prior to the 7 a.m. Finance meeting.

“I decided the best course of action was to get a bill moving, and that position right now was just the House Education strike-and-insert,” he said. “Keep in mind, the fight is not over. We will still be able to amend this bill on second reading.”

He suggested Republicans will offer amendments aiming to increase the number of charter schools and to include education savings accounts.

His own preference goes beyond that. Householder said he prefers unlimited charter schools and unlimited education savings accounts.

“My gut feeling tells me there will be members who will make amendments to that,” he said.

The committee’s vice chairman, Vernon Criss, said he’s fine with the bill.

“I think so,” said Criss, R-Wood. “We’ve tried to add some innovations in there to allow more flexibility for the school room teachers and to try to help parents with their decisions on what they want to do about their children’s educations.

“Those types of things, overall, I think it will help. And obviously trying to help with the governor’s pay raise. So it’s all in there and we’ll see what we can do.”

One of the Democrats on Finance Committee, John Williams, said the bill has not changed enough for him to vote for it. He voted against it in committee.

“As long as there’s charter schools in there, it’s not something that I can support,” said Williams, D-Monongalia.

“It’s got good things like the teachers pay raise, but as long as the charter schools are in there, I can’t support it.”

He said that’s the case, even with the number of charter schools capped at two in a pilot program.

“I just still am afraid of the road that would take us down. It starts at two and then who knows where we are in a few years.”

While Republicans may offer floor amendments to increase the number of charter schools, Democrats may offer amendments to remove the possibility.

“I don’t know of any official plans, but that wouldn’t surprise me one bit, no,” Williams said.

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