West Virginia Senate Amends Education Bill, Sends It Back to House of Delegates

CHARLESTON — Remaining defiant until the end in the face of an impending teacher strike, the West Virginia Senate amended its education reform package to restore controversial provisions the House of Delegates specifically removed or decreased.

The Senate amended Senate Bill 451, the education omnibus bill, Monday evening to restore a limited education savings account program for special needs students and to increase the number of public charter schools permitted in the state from two to seven. Included in the original draft of the legislation, those provisions had been altered when the bill was considered and approved in the House.

The newly amended bill passed 18-16 Monday with Sens. Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, and Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, voting with Senate Democrats against the bill.

“The state Senate has passed a comprehensive education reform bill,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said. “We can be the best in America, and I’m just so thrilled and happy and pleased that the state Senate and the good people in this Senate have moved forward with comprehensive education reform.”

But not everyone in the chamber agreed that the amended bill will achieve real education reform.

“As I look at this Senate amendment, I’m struggling to find out what we’ve done for students,” Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said.

“How have we helped at-risk children in our schools? Yeah, we made a few changes here and there we can go out and applaud and say we really made a difference. We haven’t made a difference. We haven’t addressed the issues.”

The Senate version passed Monday would make the public charter school program permanent with a maximum of seven schools allowed at a pace of no more than two schools to be created per year. At least one of the schools approved would need to be for at-risk students. It also would give the Public Charter School Commission the authority to allow a charter school in a school district not meeting academic standards.

The updated education savings account provision drops the number of first-come-first-serve accounts from 2,500 to 1,000. It also would make those accounts available to parents of special needs students or students who are victims of harassment and bullying.

The amended version also reduced the proposed end-of-year teacher attendance bonus from $1,000 for missing no more than four days per year back to $500.

Instead of requiring a law enforcement presence in every school in the state, the Senate amendment would create a School Safety Fund to help schools pay for security features including school resource officers. It also adds clarifications to work stoppage language, requiring that any strike would not affect the 180/200-day student/teacher calendar and restores language canceling extracurricular activities during a work stoppage.

“Significant concessions have been made in this amendment to the amendment to try to get it in shape,” state Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said. “It will confound me if the vote we’re about to have on this amendment to the amendment does not have bipartisan support. This bill has many features in it that are designed to bolster and enhance public education in West Virginia for all the students of West Virginia.”

Senate Democrats were taken aback by the Senate amendment to SB 451, claiming they hadn’t seen it and did not have time to review all the changes. Rucker said the amendment was in the Senate’s computer system an hour before 3 p.m. when the lawmakers began consideration of the amendment.

“Do you think I should vote on something I haven’t had the chance to read?” asked state Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier. “I haven’t even seen it yet. … You think I should feel comfortable enough to vote for it?”

If the House does not concur with the Senate amendment, the bill would move to a conference committee made up of three senators and three delegates to try and hammer out a compromise that both chambers can accept.

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