Charleston, WV - On Thursday, the Republican caucus of the West Virginia Senate revealed their education reform plan. Less than 24 hours later, members of the Education Committee were asked to vote on it. Instead of introducing the bill through the usual legislative process, Republican leadership decided to originate the bill in the Education Committee Thursday afternoon, shortening the time senators had to do research and seek guidance from constituents. Procedurally, the bill was set to go straight to the Senate floor until Democrats pressed the leadership on why a bill with such a large fiscal impact was not going to be seen by the Finance committee.
“I can’t begin to tell you how frustrated I am by what happened this week,” said Senator Stephen Baldwin (D-Greenbrier). “We received five versions of a complicated, 140-page bill in just over 24 hours and then were told to vote on it. No transparency. No give and take. No room for collaboration.”
Baldwin and six other Democrat members of the Education committee raised considerable objection to the rushed process in Friday’s five-hour committee meeting. Though committee members did not see a draft of the bill until the day before the vote, two out-of-state lobbyists had enough advance notice to schedule flights into the Capital city, read the bill, and prepare presentations for the committee.
“I want to talk to the Boards of Education to see if they want to do this; to the parents about different aspects; to the teachers about the increase of class sizes,” said Senator John Unger (D-Berkeley) in the meeting. “I would ask that you give me the courtesy to be able to take this piece of legislation back to the people I represent so that they can have an opportunity to have some input on this, too […] I would ask that also the public have an opportunity give feedback on it before we rush it out of here.”
“The opinion is taken into consideration, but that is not necessarily going to be the way that we’re going to do it,” answered committee Chair Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson).
The “Comprehensive Education Reform” bill, as it is being called by Republican leadership, overhauls the education system in West Virginia. Some changes are viewed by teacher organizations as generally positive—such as additional student support positions, banking of sick days for retirement, and a 5% average pay raise. Several others, however, are rehashing of efforts the legislature has voted down in the past—legalizing charter schools, providing public funds for educational savings accounts, and increasing class sizes, among others.
“The education of our children is so important in West Virginia that to try to rush through comprehensive changes in this fashion is unconscionable,” said Senator Robert Plymale (D-Wayne). Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso (D-Marion) echoed these remarks: “My concern is the size of the bill; the ramifications of all the components need to be voted out.”
Notably, the bill contains a provision to withhold teacher pay if schools are closed due to a work stoppage, along with a “non-severability clause,” which dictates that If any part of the bill is challenged, the entire act would be voided (including pay raises). “Many people feel this education bill is nothing more than retaliation for the embarrassment teachers caused the GOP last year. They might be onto something,” said Senator Bob Beach (D-Monongalia).
“It’s hard to understand why this has to be done so quickly—and without any input from the most experienced members of the body,” said Senator Ron Stollings (D-Boone).
The bill passed out of committee on 7/5 a party line vote. “What has been demonstrated in this committee is an affront to Democracy,” said Senator John Unger (D-Berkeley), after the vote. Senator Mike Romano (D-Harrison) agreed: “We are witnessing the dismantling of public education by ambush,” said Romano.
All Democrat members of the committee asked that their names not be listed as sponsors, as would otherwise happen with an originating bill.
“It is clear the Republican majority wrote this bill in secret with its Koch-Brother-funded allies, who want to create an elite school system for the elite while defunding public schools to ruin. They underfunded public education for years so that they could claim it was broken and rationalize this radical abandonment of our children,” said Romano.
“Changes are important to improve education outcomes and efficiency, but not just going by some national playbook,” said Stollings.
“This proposal isn’t based on best practices from the world’s best schools,” said Baldwin. “If we want to get serious about education reform, we need to put our students first with smaller class sizes, safer schools, vocational training, and increased mental health access.”