By Ryan Quinn, Charleston Gazette-Mail
The speaker of the House of Delegates and the state Senate president both prioritized educational changes Tuesday, but hinted at discord as to what those may involve.
The Republican legislative leaders say the upcoming session will include talk of free community college tuition, charter schools and higher pay for math teachers, though the House of Delegates speaker isn’t as firmly behind the first two issues as the Senate president is.
They said they also expect the Legislature to follow through with another 5 percent pay raise for teachers and school workers in general plus many other state employees.
The annual regular legislative session begins Wednesday. Education was the first of the priority areas state Senate President Mitch Carmichael mentioned at a Tuesday joint news conference with House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw.
Republican Gov. Jim Justice, who announced he’s running for re-election Monday, expressed opposition Tuesday to charter schools; Carmichael, R-Jackson, said he’s a “100 percent” charter school advocate; and Hanshaw, R-Clay, said he doesn’t know where the House is on the issue. Hanshaw said the National Guard-supported Mountaineer Challenge Academy could be considered a charter school.
“I don’t think we’re anywhere close to a definition on that,” Hanshaw said.
“We’re striving to continue to try to fix our public schools and our public education, and pay our teachers what they ought to be paid and our service personnel and everything else, and until we get that on solid ground, I can’t possibly see us taking on charter schools,” Justice said. “I just believe that today as we strive to provide a better education for everyone, we don’t really need to cherry pick the privileged until we get our public education system in a really good way.”
“These are public charter schools that are open to all,” Carmichael said. “It’s not just the privileged ... I think it’s a moral imperative for us to instill competition and flexibility and achievement into the school system. Through public charter schools is one option.”
Also in the “school choice” vein [others denounce it as “privatization”], a joint news release Tuesday from Carmichael and Hanshaw said their joint education priorities include creating “education savings accounts for special needs students.”
Education savings accounts (different from the 529 college savings accounts) generally act like private school vouchers, which provide families public money to send their kids to religious and secular private schools. But education savings accounts can also go to homeschooling and other uses.
Hanshaw said this is another area where definitions may be an issue, saying he thinks “it’s not so much school choice as it is additional resources,” like home tutoring, for special education students beyond what their current school is able to offer.
He said, “I think the easiest step for the House to take is to start that process with special needs students ... whether it goes beyond that, I can’t say.”
Justice and Carmichael supported a free community college tuition bill during last year’s regular legislative session, but the House never took it up. Carmichael said Tuesday he’s pushing it again.
Hanshaw then approached the lectern, saying “We want to look at it in the context of immediately employable skill sets” and “We will take up [the Senate’s] proposal in some form or fashion this year.”
When pressed on whether he supports free community college, Hanshaw said “I don’t know if community college is the right thing to support ... we will be on board with proposals that expand access and opportunities for workforce training, we’re anxious to work with the Senate as we explore what that right mix of skill sets should be.”
Hanshaw said many available jobs are at the associate’s degree level, but many “don’t necessarily require a four-year college education, they don’t even require a two-year education, what they require is marketable skills.” Community colleges do offer degrees other than two-year degrees, such as certificates.
State Schools Superintendent Steve Paine supports some type of one-time pay stipend for educators who aren’t certified to teach math, but are teaching it anyway, to increase their math education skills, and for elementary school teachers to also improve their math teaching techniques.
Paine has suggested Justice will provide more information in his State of the State address Wednesday. A West Virginia Department of Education report using data from last school year found 38 percent of public school math courses in grades seven through 11 are taught by “non-fully certified” teachers.
Hanshaw said, “I personally support 1,000 percent” allowing teachers of certain subjects to be paid more than others. And he said he doesn’t just support a one-time stipend, he supports allowing math and science teachers to start off making more than teachers of other subjects.
“Certainly, the men and women who go into teaching math and science have other career opportunities that those degrees prepare them for,” Hanshaw said. “The easiest move for me is to start there.”
“Folks who are already teaching math and science, ought to, in some way, be [incentivized] to actually get certified and to continue doing it,” he said. “But if we want to actually recruit people to those specific fields, we have to bring them in paying more.”
Carmichael also expressed broad support for differential pay.
“In the private sector, when you have an area you can’t fill with the current pay structure, you raise the pay, then you get the person,” he said. “I know the unions always want the same pay for everybody, but that’s not serving our students.”
“So we want to introduce that option of allowing the flexibility to pay more for areas of high needs,” he said. As examples, he noted not just math teachers, but special education teachers and teachers in the Eastern Panhandle, which is bordered by affluent parts of other states that may attract West Virginia teachers with higher pay.
Unmentioned in Tuesday’s news release and news conference was anything related to the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education, dismantling or radically changing the separate state Higher Education Policy Commission or a long-term funding formula for four-year and community colleges. The governor’s Blue Ribbon panel missed its initial Dec. 10 deadline to have its work done and is still working.