CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Education reform legislation includes charter schools and controversial changes to hiring and firing teachers. The two chambers of the Legislature can’t agree, and the legislation collapses.
The governor calls a series of forums to hear from those directly involved with the school systems. Lawmakers get back together, and the proposals collapse again.
That was 2010, when then-Gov. Joe Manchin was pushing for education reform. Then, like now, consensus was a major challenge.
“As Yogi Berra said, ‘It’s deja vu all over again,’” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.
Lee was around in 2010, fighting the changes proposed by Manchin and some legislators. He’ll be right back again today when the House of Delegates returns to consider changes to West Virginia’s education system.
As in 2010, there are controversial aspects of the omnibus bill the Legislature is considering. Charter schools are again part of the bill. A provision would reduce the role seniority plays in layoff situations. Another provision would make state law specify that striking against the state is illegal.
“Eerily similar to this year, when it doesn’t seem like we’re going to get a break,” Lee said last week.
There are a lot of parallels to the consideration of education reform in 2010. But there are significant differences, too.
In 2010, the changes were pushed by Manchin, who was trying to draw down federal Race to the Top dollars. Each chamber of the Legislature was controlled by Democrats, although there were divides between those who were aligned with business and those who were aligned with labor.
In this case, Gov. Jim Justice called the special session but expressed misgivings about some of the controversial provisions. The Republican majority in the Senate pushed the omnibus bill, including the charter schools. The Republican-led House of Delegates has been divided in its support and tabled the omnibus bill in the regular session.
Teacher unions and Democrats called for the current special session to stop.
Manchin, in his 2010 State of the State address, pledged to convene a special session if West Virginia was not chosen for the first round of funding in the U.S. Department of Education’s $4.3 million Race to the Top program under the Obama administration.
Proposals included a teacher performance monitoring system based on student testing and other factors, incentive-based pay for teachers, changes to allow the state board to remove ineffective principals in a timely fashion, alternative certification programs for non-teachers and legislation called “Charter Innovation Zones 2.0.”
But when the Legislature got together for a special session that May, it came to a swift halt. The House and Senate, over seven days, were increasingly at loggerheads over almost all of Manchin’s proposals.
“So that session ended and nothing really got accomplished,” recalled Howard O’Cull, director of the West Virginia School Board Association.
O’Cull said the division was clear in 2010 over charter schools and a provision that tied teacher evaluations to pay.
“They were anathema to Democrats then also,” O’Cull said last week. “My perception was there was no great desire to do a lot of the things in Race to the Top.”
Rather than give up, Manchin established a task force. It was comprised of 10 lawmakers — five from each chamber — plus members of the state’s largest teacher unions.
“Nothing has been lost,” Manchin said at the time. “We have everything to gain by taking this approach forward.”
The task force met over the next few weeks, pushing into the summer.
Among those who served was then-Senate Education Chairman Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, who remains in the Legislature.
Plymale, this past week, said he didn’t like the top-down approach through Race to the Top.
“This was really a bad intrusion from the federal government,” he said. “I’m a state’s rights person for education. I truly believe the federal government should not be involved with it.”
Another participant on the task force was then-Sen. Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, a former teacher and principal.
“We did have a lot of meetings with the different teacher organizations. We weren’t doing anything nearly like what was being done today,” Browning said last week.
“We took testimony from the different groups. We listened to the business side of it. We didn’t have a playbook written by some national organization to go by.”
What the panel wound up recommending didn’t quite align with what even the state school board had in mind.
“We asked for a blue ball and we ended up with a yellow triangle,” then-state school board member Wade Linger said at the time.
Looking back, Plymale said there was not enough consensus.
“They failed because there was not support,” he said last week. “We really didn’t come to an agreement from that committee in support of those things, and the governor ran those bills anyway, and they did not succeed.”
When the Legislature got back together in July, the proposed changes to the education system fizzled. Consideration of the bills was complicated by the June 28, 2010, death of longtime U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.
“That became the top priority, and education had to take a backseat,” Judy Hale, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, said at the time. “I don’t think either house was inclined to get into further controversy at the time.”
Manchin expressed disappointment.
“We stepped forward as hard as we could … and we still got nothing,” he said of the seven-bill agenda for education reform.
Manchin, almost a decade ago now, said education reform is necessary in West Virginia because students were unprepared to enter the workforce.
“The results don’t lie. They are what they are,” he said. “The education system is the way it is, perhaps, because change hasn’t happened.”
One compromise to emerged that year was Innovation Zones, which are somewhat different from charter schools.
Charter schools begin as exempt from almost all school system regulation but have to meet standards to retain their charters. Innovation Zones may ask to opt out of regulations.
“The consequence of that is, we got Innovation Zones out of that,” O’Cull said. “They were a consolation. That’s really about the only thing that came out of that session.”
Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, who has served off and on in the Legislature since 1995, said lawmakers made the right decisions in 2010 by not embracing policies such as charter schools and aligning teacher pay with test scores.
“We followed people who are the experts on education at that time, and we should do the same thing this time,” Fleischauer said last week.
Fleischauer agreed the politics of the 2010 session was complicated, with the Democratic-led Senate and House considering education reforms embraced by the Democratic Obama administration and the Democratic governor.
The education debate became a battle of ideas expressed by then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan versus teacher unions that have traditionally supported Democratic candidates, she said.
“That one was different because as Democrats we were torn — because here is this person who is promoting this idea, and the people in support of Democrats were saying ‘Wait a minute, this might not be the best thing.”
Lee, who is back for another fight representing the West Virginia Education Association, wouldn’t mind if the results were the same this time around.
“Just like 2010 when the majority of the people were saying, ‘We didn’t want these things,’ same thing here with charters and ESAs,” Lee said last week.
“When you push things outside the realm of what people want, we saw it collapse in 2010. I can see an avenue where it would do the same thing now.”