Featured, Government

Omnibus education bill passes the W.Va. Senate, again

CHARLESTON — The state Senate again passed an omnibus education bill, just as it did during the regular legislative session.

The vote on Monday was 18-15 with one absence. The votes in the regular session were consistently 18-16.

During the regular session, the Senate passed a bill and the House struggled with some of its more controversial provisions before tabling it for good. That led to the current special session.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael lauded today’s passage of the bill. It now goes to the House of Delegates, where its chances of passage are again less clear.

“The state Senate took an historic step in improving the performance of students in West Virginia,” Carmichael said. “We took an historic step in improving the pay scale of our West Virginia teachers. And we took an historic step in providing flexibility choice and options for our parents. This is a day to celebrate the focus on education in West Virginia.”

The bill includes a variety of proposed changes to the education system, including pay raises, charter schools, increased support personnel for schools, open enrollment, incentives to fill in-demand positions and financial support for small or struggling counties.

It differs somewhat from an omnibus bill that was considered during the regular session.

That bill included a controversial provision for education savings accounts, included a “paycheck protection act” that was criticized as anti-union and a clause that would have wiped out the whole bill — including the pay raises — if any aspect of the bill were ruled unconstitutional.

Teachers unions, which went on strike two years in a row in West Virginia, have fought this bill.

Teachers turned out at the Capitol in force on Saturday, as consideration of the bill started. There were fewer teachers as consideration continued on Sunday and Monday.

“We wanted to make sure Saturday that we had a presence here,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association. “We knew Saturday what was going to happen. Saturday was to keep them from suspending the rules to do it in one day.

“Sunday and today, we knew how the vote was going to go. We knew it was going to be an 18-15 vote. So we weren’t asking people who are in school now to take off to make sure they were here. We’re looking now at the next step.”

Lee said there was no swaying the vote on the bill’s passage.

“They were entrenched,” he said. “The 17 or 18, they knew what they were going to do. They didn’t want to listen to the people, and they didn’t want to have bipartisanship.”

Passage of the bill on Monday was preceded by two hours of debate. Most Republicans rose in support, while most Democrats rose with concerns about aspects of the bill, saying changes to education policy should be voted up or down as individual bills.

Senator Paul Hardesty, D-Logan, was one of those saying he would prefer to consider individual bills.

“If this bill was split up and each issue was put into a standalone bill, I could support many, many of the issues before us today,” he said.

Senator Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, wanted to know when the back and forth over the education bill would stop. “Are you doomed for eternity to push this rock uphill?” he asked Carmichael.

Senator Randy Smith, R-Tucker, said the provisions of the omnibus education bill are worth trying.

“We have to start someplace,” Smith said. “If it works, we’ll add to it. If it doesn’t, we’ll change it.”

Finally, Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, described significant work that went into the bill, saying it had been the result of conversations with administrators, teachers, parents and students.

“This is a step in the right direction,” Rucker said.

She later added, “It was my intent to try to help everyone in this comprehensive bill.”