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Senate Democrats unveil proposal on education legislation

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By Alex Thomas, WV MetroNews

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Democrats in the West Virginia Senate plan to introduce multiple education bills next week during the special legislative session, although what lawmakers will exactly consider during that session is unknown.

Members of the Senate Democratic Caucus on Monday announced plans to introduce legislation once the session begins.

“We’re here to offer a sincere effort to better education and student achievement in the state of West Virginia,” Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said.

House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and state Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, issued a call for lawmakers to convene in Charleston for a special session beginning May 20 at 2 p.m.

Prezioso, standing alongside lawmakers in front of a playground next to Piedmont Elementary School in Charleston, said the caucus’ multiple bills follow weeks of input and research, including forums on education policy.

The West Virginia Department of Education organized eight forums in March and April to gauge public interest on possible legislation; Gov. Jim Justice called for such events after lawmakers failed to approve a 5% pay raise during this year’s regular session.

Senate Democrats held similar public discussions, as did Republicans and local boards of education.

The legislative proposal addresses four topics: what Greenbrier County Sen. Stephen Baldwin described as “getting to the root of the social problems that follow students to schools,” local flexibility, boosting instructor quality and increasing vocational and technical education opportunities.

“We’re going to have about six pieces of legislation we’re going to offer,” Prezioso added.

Baldwin said there are two goals he wants addressed first: Reducing the number of babies exposed to drugs while in the womb and providing more mental health services in schools. This would mean expanding the state’s existing Drug-Free Moms and Babies pilot program — which includes increasing services and cooperating with community organizations on treatment options — and expanding the definition of student support services to include more mental health professionals.

“We’re dealing with a problem that is not just a school problem or an education problem; it’s a public health problem,” he said. “Everybody agrees that we need to do this, and we think we found a responsible way to do it that puts it on a level of the severity of the problem that we face.”

Baldwin added changing the definition would mean more health professionals in schools.

“The takeaway from that is we can hire one additional full-time mental health professional in every school in the state,” he said. “It costs $41 million to do that, but I think it’s an investment that’s absolutely worth it.”

The proposal additionally includes removing regulations on innovation zones, local school improvement councils and virtual schools, providing school systems further opportunities to react to local concerns.

“The particular pieces of legislation that we’re offering opens up that process so that it’s a little bit easier to apply to be an innovation zone. Local school improvement councils have greater input and influence from the communities that they represent,” Baldwin said.

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said school boards can better address teacher and student concerns than state lawmakers.

“School boards are elected individuals. They can go in and out of office on an in-or-out vote, but that’s where the innovation ought to be,” he said.

Justice’s proposed pay raise is part of the Democratic outline, as is a $300 increase in stipends for individual classroom supplies. Democratic lawmakers also want to revitalize the state’s Underwood-Smith Teacher Scholarship Program, which provides financial aid to college students interested in teaching careers. Changes to the initiative could mean making the program less restrictive.

They also plan to back studying student loan forgiveness and the effects on recruiting and retaining teachers.

Logan County Sen. Paul Hardesty said lawmakers need to recognize teachers need help and the state needs teachers.

“Socioeconomic conditions in this state have deteriorated to a great degree. I’ll like to remind you of one thing I heard in a listening tour in Logan: A teacher stood up and said he had 21 children in a classroom. Three of those 21 students came from a traditional home,” he said.

“We’re at a crisis point in West Virginia. We went out across the state, we listened, and we do intend to keep the promise.”

The final part of the proposal is expanding vocation education to middle schools; schools could apply for funding as part of a grant created through new legislation.

“Seeing and meeting with the manufacturers, that is the one thing that they reinforce to me,” Sen. Glenn Jeffries, D-Putnam, said. “They need those young students to see that there are opportunities out there for them.”

Hanshaw said Monday in a press release lawmakers and education officials are “nearing consensus” on education policy ideas.

“Our House GOP caucus has already discussed this plan, and I have met with Gov. Justice, Senate leaders, and members of the state Board of Education to build support for this path forward,” he noted. “In the coming days, I also plan to meet with my colleagues across the aisle to build bipartisan support for this plan. It is my hope that we will be able to come together and champion this approach in a bipartisan fashion.”

Republicans during the regular session failed to pass Senate Bill 451, a sweeping measure which included establishing charter schools as well as education savings accounts. Teachers and other education personnel held a two-day strike in opposition to the bill, which died in the House of Delegates.

The upcoming session will likely deal with legislation Justice vetoed earlier this year because of technical issues. A special session on education could be held as early as June.