Education Key To School Bill

Gov. Jim Justice is right to want to keep promises he and some key legislators made to West Virginia public employees last fall.

He is also correct in thinking that boosting the pay of public school employees is only half the battle in improving education in our state.

It seems highly unlikely legislators, whose annual session ends at midnight tonight, will agree on the 5 percent raise many of them and the governor promised to public employees last fall. Noting that, Justice has issued a call for a special session to begin immediately after the current one ends, “to focus on education betterment in West Virginia.”

Justice’s idea is that, before beginning action on any school-related legislation, lawmakers “will recess immediately so they can go out and listen to teachers, parents, community leaders, and all those with a vested interest in making education better in West Virginia. When the legislators return to the session, they will be ready to tackle the issues and get it done.”

Yes, lawmakers should listen. But those who proposed school improvements this winter, through Senate Bill 451, should talk, too. They should explain their proposal to constituents, who, to date, have heard little more than sweeping denunciations or generalized praise of SB 451.

SB 451 died when the three unions representing many school employees called their members out for a two-day strike. Even before the bill’s demise, some provisions objected to by the union leaders had been removed. But one, authorizing a few charter schools, was enough for them to reject the measure out of hand.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, already has issued a veiled threat regarding Justice’s call for a special session on education. More talk about charter schools and education savings accounts “will lead to additional outrage from education employees,” Lee warned in a press release.

Would that outrage extend to another strike, should lawmakers in, say, late March or early April discuss another school improvement bill that includes charters and ESAs?

We agree with Lee and other union leaders that much emphasis should be placed on making public schools better. SB 451 included a variety of features that could help in doing so. But, though we and others in the press pointed out several desirable aspects of the bill earlier this year, it is a question whether most Mountain State residents have the comprehensive understanding of the bill — all of it — needed to guide their elected delegates and senators in voting on any such measure.

That makes it imperative that, before legislators return to Charleston to begin debating any school-related action, they have time to get out among the people and educate both themselves and their constituents.

Unless that happens, the possibility of the kind of real school improvement West Virginia needs is slim.

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