Using rare maneuver, Democrats kill Senate charter school bill

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Using rare maneuver, Democrats kill Senate charter school bill
By Ryan Quinn, The Charleston Gazette

After a bill to allow charter schools in West Virginia appeared on the Senate Education Committee’s agenda a dozen times, Democrats permanently shot it down Monday during its first hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.

Howard O’Cull, who worked on the bill and said he’s lobbied for the West Virginia School Board Association since 1978, said the Democrats used a maneuver the Legislature hasn’t seen since the mid-to-late 1980s.

The move was an indefinite postponement, which O’Cull called a “death knell” for any bill for the rest of the session.

“It is considered the most negative of all legislative parliamentary procedures, because there is no recourse for it,” he said.
O’Cull said Senate Bill 14, which had dominated much of the Senate Education Committee’s time, is now dead in that body. He said there’s a possibility that the House, which is also controlled by Republicans, could create a bill to allow charter schools, but time is running out.

Amanda Pasdon, a Monongalia County Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, said she’s still “exploring options” to pass a charter schools bill from the House.

“I think in some way we will try to revive it,” Pasdon said. Pasdon said it’s a shame the bill got killed in the way it did. She said Sen. Dave Sypolt, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, allowed for a lot of amendments and she saw the bill as a well-rounded, bipartisan piece of legislation.

Sen. John Unger, a Berkeley County Democrat who serves on both the education and finance committees, said he suggested the motion to Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall and former Senate president.

Kessler made the motion, and eight Democrats voted for the indefinite postponement while six Republicans voted against. Three Republicans were absent.

Unger, who spoke against the bill in the education committee before Republicans there passed it to finance last week on a party-line vote, said he wasn’t purposely taking advantage of Republican absences to kill the bill.

“The fact of the matter is the meeting was called,” he said. He reiterated his argument that, instead of allowing charters, the state should fund traditional public schools so they can implement in all schools the innovations charter proponents tout.

Charters would be freed from many state and county laws and policies, including those that protect union-valued rights to things like planning periods for teachers and lunches during which they don’t have to be on cafeteria supervision duty. Teacher unions were opposed to the current version of the bill.

“Certainly I was pleased with the actions that were taken today,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, “because if we’re going to do this, we need to take the time to do it right, and this bill wasn’t the best bill for West Virginia.”

“This is an indication that committee members are listening to the calls and emails from their constituents,” wrote Christine Campbell, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement. “Charters would take resources from our neighborhood schools.”

O’Cull — who has been executive director of the School Board Association, which is comprised of county school board members, for 30 years — said his organization’s legislative committee was not opposed to charter schools, though the association didn’t take an official position on the bill. It instead worked with legislators to perfect it.

“We offered 13 amendments to perfect the bill rather than see it killed,” O’Cull said. Some of these amendments passed, like one ensuring that religiously-affiliated groups couldn’t establish charter schools.

O’Cull said he’d also prepared an amendment for likely future introduction that would have eased Unger’s concerns about extremist groups creating charters.

“It’s very difficult in West Virginia to make innovation in education because the citizens don’t own education in West Virginia, interest groups do, and as a result, change of magnitude is often crushed,” O’Cull said.

He said the bill was “an opportunity for innovation in a very direct way that would have given more flexibility to struggling schools, students on the margins, and communities that really need to pull together for education.”

SB14 would have allowed non-community organizations like nonprofits and “public organizations” to apply to county school boards to create charters.

Parents, teachers, school administrators and residents also would’ve had that right. For the first five years, only two charters a year would’ve been approved statewide. Those charter proposals denied by a school board could have appealed to a higher body established by the bill.

New charter schools could have been built, or existing traditional public schools could’ve been converted to charters. Charters would have been given “autonomy over key decisions, including, but not limited to, decisions concerning finance, personnel, scheduling, curriculum and instruction.”

Charter students would’ve been required to take the regular statewide standardized tests, and would’ve been generally required to meet or exceed traditional public school students’ performance on them.

Charters would have also been free from prevailing wage laws.