Delegates reject amendments offering more charters, education savings accounts

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Brad McElhinny, WV MetroNews

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Delegates spent hours debating amendments to an omnibus education bill, rejecting a proposal to bump up the number of allowable charter schools as well as one that would establish education savings accounts.

Those were two key but controversial provisions in the bill as it passed over from the state Senate. The Senate majority was enthusiastic about each of those school choice elements.

So if the education bill passes the House of Delegates on Thursday, that sets up a collision course conference committee.

The 125-page bill would make a variety of changes to West Virginia’s school system. It would bundle long-promised pay raises with the establishment of a few charter schools, a change to authority over local school levies, banking of unused personal days and more.

The House started debating amendments just after noon and went well into the evening.

 “I’m going all night. I’ll never stop speaking about freedom for families,” said Delegate Tom Bibby, R-Berkeley.

There were 35 amendments submitted by delegates for consideration. Delegate Marshall Wilson submitted 14 himself, many offering different possible numbers of charter schools.

By 10:30 p.m., delegates had adopted an amended version of the big education bill. The vote was 61 ayes and 38 nays.

There were so many changes over so many hours, even the delegates tried their best to keep track.

“I would just like the chairman to explain what’s left. Or the speaker, or someone,” said Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, as the final changes to the bill were being considered.

Here are the high points:

Rejected: more charter schools

Delegates overwhelmingly rejected an amendment increasing the number of possible charter schools to five or six. The bill currently has a pilot program of two.

Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said five would be too many.

If the amendment should pass, Doyle said, “We should strike the word ‘pilot’ and accept that we have gone full-bore.”

The amendment on charter schools was defeated 40-59 with one absence. That reflects the divide over the issue in the House of Delegates, where Republicans actually have a 59-41 majority.

 “Why should West Virginia parents, students and teachers not have the same options that 44 states and the District of Columbia have for their students?” asked Majority Whip Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, one of the sponsors of the charter schools amendment.

Delegates later rejected another proposal that would have wiped out the entire section establishing charter schools, but only narrowly. That vote was 45-49.

Rejected: education savings accounts

Delegates also overwhelmingly rejected an amendment that would have put education savings accounts back in the bill. Those would set aside taxpayer dollars for students leaving public schools for private education.

The amendment was shot down 37-62.

The debate also showed a gulf among the delegates’ positions.

“This is a freedom bill for families,” said Delegate Bibby.

Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, concluded: “This is a terrible idea. It’s a waste of money.”

And Delegate Mark Dean, R-Mingo and vice chairman of the Education Committee: “I urge rejection of this amendment.”

Dean added, “There are a lot of government programs that I don’t think are functioning the way I think they should be functioning, but I don’t have the option of removing 70 percent of my support.”

Passed: More funding for school safety

Delegates approved an amendment offered by Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, meant to boost police protection in schools.

Sponaugle said he was inspired by a conversation with students who expressed worries about school shootings. “It almost put tears in your eyes.”

A debate over a little more than an hour focused on the necessary for security versus how much the police presence might cost. Sponaugle said his change would cost about $40 million.

The amendment passed 82-17-1.

The ACLU of West Virginia came out with a statement against this provision later in the evening, calling it dangerous.

Approved but later rejected: Amendment striking school levy provision

Delegates spent a long time debating an amendment removing a section giving county school boards — with citizen votes — the authority to move local school levies to a maximum.

The amendment sponsored by Delegate Danielle Linville, R-Cabell, was first approved 50-49, inspiring the delegate to offer a fist pump.

But then Delegate David Kelly, R-Tyler, asked to reconsider the vote. Only a delegate on the winning side can ask for such reconsideration.

 “We just did this. We just took care of it. Are we gonna reconsider all sorts of things?” Linville asked.

After an extended debate about the provision’s effect on local property taxes, delegates reversed course and voted down the amendment, 47-52.

Delegates adopted a separate but related amendment by Delegate Terri Sypolt, R-Preston, clarifying that county residents would vote on any levy rate increase during a General Election.

Passed: Bigger bonus for educators

Another proposal to boost bonuses for educators who use four or fewer personal leave days was passed, 65-33. The amendment would bump the bonus from $500 up to $1,000.

Some delegates said the state can’t afford that amount. And others said educators are already being paid for those days anyway. But still others said a greater incentive to refrain from using personal days would cut down on substitute costs.

“If you’re for saving your counties money, if you’re for keeping those teachers in the classroom to create a better product for students, you’re for this amendment,” said the amendment’s sponsor, Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha.

Passed: Changes to the dismissal or suspension of school personnel

This passed rather quickly on a voice vote.

Delegates Espinosa, Bibby, Wilson and Daryl Cowles proposed changes to conditions under which county boards may suspend or dismiss school personnel. It adds a finding of abuse by DHHR or a misdemeanor relevant to the job as grounds.

The sponsors were Eastern Panhandle delegates responding to reports of a classroom abuse allegation.