After Teachers Strike, West Virginia Lawmakers Postpone Education Bill

Cheers exploded from the gallery, which was packed by teachers from throughout the state who went on strike Tuesday in opposition of the bill.

By The Register-Herald

On a 53-45 vote, the West Virginia House of Delegates voted Tuesday afternoon to "indefinitely postpone" the omnibus education bill.

Cheers exploded from the gallery, which was packed by teachers from throughout the state who went on strike Tuesday in opposition of the bill.

It is unclear at this time whether the strike is over.

In a statement, state Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine said based on the action taken, "Educator voices were clearly heard."

Paine said, "I strongly encourage all county school systems to return to school tomorrow, Feb. 20. I urge educators to respect the process and allow it to work.

"I understand that there is still concern over what may happen next. Both Governor Justice and many members of the legislature have shown a commitment to listening to the voice of educators and doing what is best for West Virginia students.

"Additionally, Governor Justice has called for the legislature to consider his stand-alone pay raise bill along with other measures to improve county finances and I am confident they will do so."

Gov. Jim Justice held a press conference at 3:30 p.m. calling for the Legislature to pass his pay raise bill, and for teachers to go back to work. He also said he would like to see funding for school support services, such as counselors and psychologists, as well as funding for smaller counties.

Last month, West Virginia state Senate Republican leaders introduced a bill to make sweeping changes to West Virginia's education system. Their bill tied more raises for teachers and funding for school support workers, such as counselors, to more controversial provisions, including provisions for charter schools and education savings accounts, and reducing the importance of teacher seniority during lay-offs.

Charter schools are public schools that are privately managed. Education savings accounts allow parents to use tax money for private educational expenses, such as home-school or private school. Teachers unions argued those provisions would take money from traditional schools.

After the state Senate passed it, the House of Delegates significantly altered the bill, removing the education savings account provision and limiting the number of charter schools to two.

The two bodies have to agree on changes before bills become law.

Monday, the state Senate had put education savings accounts back into the bill, and raised the number of charter schools allowed in the state to seven, along with numerous other changes

Upon receiving the bill Tuesday from the Senate during the 11 a.m. floor session, delegates rejected a motion by House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, to wait to consider the bill until 4 p.m., giving delegates more time to review Senate changes.

Del. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, motioned to postpone the bill indefinitely, meaning to delay action forever, killing the bill for the legislative session.

Some delegates said postponing the bill indefinitely would be rejecting the legislative process. The House could have chosen to appoint a committee to work with the Senate on a final version.

"We took three days in education," said Del. Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison and the House Education Chair. His committee's version of the bill had been supported by teachers unions.

"We took a day and a half in Finance," he said. "We took an entire day on the House floor to work through this bill and now we're getting to a point -- I understand that a majority of this body doesn't agree with what the Senate did but that doesn't mean we just throw it away and stop working on the process."

"There were a few things that were tossed round from my friends on the other side of the aisle, like, 'Why do we want to run from this?'" Caputo responded. "Why do we want to throw in the towel? Why do we want to do all this right now? Well I have a theory. If all the things in this bill was so good, they wouldn't have put 'em all on one of the seats on that omnibus and sent it over here."

Del. Brandon Steele, representing Raleigh County, urged his fellow delegates to vote against Caputo's motion.

"The people trust us to handle this appropriately," he said. "Not kill things without talking about it."

He then voted to kill the bill, and did not immediately respond to an inquiry as to why.

Del. Cindy Lavender-Bowe, D-Greenbrier, made a post on her Facebook account, outlining a parliamentary procedure that could bring the bill back into play.

In a release around 2 p.m., Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, issued the following statement:

"Today's action by the House of Delegates on comprehensive education reform is a delay, not a defeat. There is a vital need to reform West Virginia's education system, and I do not believe that any true transformation comes through pay raise alone.

"Our families deserve competition, choice, and flexibility. The 18 members of the Senate who relentlessly pursued giving families that option will not stop working toward that goal.

"Thousands of families across the state had their fundamental right to educational freedom usurped by the will of those who cling so desperately to the status quo and the empty promises by those who pressure them to defend it.

"I am disappointed, but let me be clear: I am not defeated. In the Senate, 'tired of being 50th' isn't just a clever slogan. It's a call for action, and we will act."

----In an interview Monday, Tega Toney, an Oak Hill High School teacher, president of AFT-Fayette County and vice president of AFT-West Virginia, said main reasons for the strike included provisions allowing seven charter schools in the state, education savings accounts, and the change to the importance of teacher seniority.

By 10 p.m. Monday, 54 of 55 counties throughout the state had announced schools would be closed. Putnam County remained open.

"They could have never introduced this bill in the first place," Toney said. "They could have listened to the true experts in education, the teachers, the service personnel, the principals, the superintendents. If they want education reform, bring us in, bring us to the table, and let's work together. Do it with us. Don't do it to us."

(c)2019 The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.)