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Big crowd speaks out on omnibus education bill

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By Brad McElhinny, WV MetroNews

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A surge of speakers addressed West Virginia’s omnibus education bill during the first of two public hearings in the House of Delegates.

With each speaker given 70 seconds, the two-hour event was a bit like speed dating with superintendents, teachers and parents speaking for and against the bill. Another public hearing was set for 5:30 p.m. today.

“I’m thankful for being here this morning, realizing how fast 70 seconds goes,” said Fred Albert, president of American Federations of Teachers-West Virginia.

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.

Most speakers said they were against the bill — particularly charter schools and educational savings accounts that have been recommended for change by the House Education Committee.

“Just because you call it sweeping reform does not make it sweeping reform,” said Karen Nance, a former Cabell County school board member.

But some parents said they are in favor of those school choice provisions and urged their inclusion.

“Parents and students are desperate for change. They are desperate for options and choices,” said speaker Kathie Crouse. “This is your time to make history.”

The bill passed last Monday out of the Senate, where Senate President Mitch Carmichael lauded it as comprehensive education reform.

“Shame on you Mr. Mitch for floating this trial balloon of deception,” said Natalie Laliberty, an elementary school principal in Kanawha County.

The House Education Committee’s version is scaled way back from what the Senate first passed on Monday.

“Please, please, keep it intact,” West Virginia state school board President Dave Perry said of that version.

A non-severability clause was removed right away. That would have meant the whole bill, including the teacher pay raise would have been struck down if any element were successfully challenged in court.

A ‘paycheck protection’ provision was removed right away too. That would have mandated annual approval for teachers union members to have their dues withheld from paychecks. Unions viewed it as an anti-organized labor provision.

The Senate’s version allowed charter schools. That’s still in the bill, but barely. House Education at first capped the charters at six. Now there’s a pilot program for two.

Delegates on House Education voted to remove a provision establishing educational savings accounts entirely. Those would have provided money for private educational expenses for students leaving public school.

The House Education committee also voted to remove an entire section that detailing the consequences of a work stoppage. Originally, the bill would have withheld pay if a work stoppage closed schools. Extracurricular activities would have been canceled.

The committee altered a section that would have removed seniority as the main factor in job retention. Now seniority is linked to evaluations in those instances.

An amendment passed by the committee would provide money for innovation zones, which are already in West Virginia law but without funding.

Now it goes to the House Finance Committee, which could change it again.

House Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, presided over Monday’s public hearing. He noted that people who didn’t quite finish speaking could provide their written comments to him.

Parent David Howell told lawmakers West Virginia’s school system needs to provide more choices.

“You made promises that you would do educational reform in this state,” he said. “I would implore you to pass this bill as handed to you by the Senate.”

Tim Woodward, superintendent of Hancock County schools, said West Virginia needs broader societal changes to help support the school systems.

“We’ve got to come in and comprehensively change our communities. Our communities are hurting,” he said. “Until we face the fact that schools are symptom, not the problem, we’re going to go around and around.”

Debra Sullivan, former principal of Charleston Catholic and now state school board member, argued against including the charter schools and educational savings accounts components.

“Proposals to divert public funding to support private education are wrong,” Sullivan said. “Charter schools are private schools in disguise.”

Mickey Blackwell, president of West Virginia’s elementary/middle school principals association, said the entire bill should be scrapped.

“I cannot change your mind in 70 seconds, but I will tell you this bill is specious and won’t do what it sets out to do,” he said. “Kill this bill. Work on the governor’s proposal.”