What’s Outlook for School Bills?

So, what will happen today in Charleston? Will the state Senate pass public school “betterment” legislation? What will be in it? What happens next?

One of the few fun aspects of politics is making predictions. Many people do it, sometimes betting money on their hunches. So, let’s make a few

n Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, had hoped to save taxpayers a few dollars by getting through the special session on education in one day. Good for him. The cost of having both the Senate and House of Delegates in action for one day is about $35,000. Better to use that much to hire a new worker for the Division of Highways, some would say.

But don’t bet on it. The “Student Success Act” championed by Carmichael is a major overhaul of public education. Lawmakers will want to talk about it a bit, then think it over. The presence of members of the state’s three school worker unions at the Capitol won’t make it easy to get things done. My bet: Sunday or even Monday before a bill is passed.

n It will be approved by the Senate, where Republicans hold a comfortable edge.

n What will be approved? Both major GOP bills. One is the SSA, which includes much of what was in the “Omnibus Education bill” defeated last winter, but with important changes to charter school provisions. A stand-alone bill would create education savings accounts, opposed by the unions. That one will pass, too. More on it below.

n What next? House of Delegates members — who, it will be remembered, killed the omnibus bill — won’t convene until June 17. Speaker Roger Hanshaw’s preference is for multiple bills, not the SSA approach. Still, delegates will talk about it. If they approve it, they will do so with amendments, meaning the Senate would have to go back to vote on the altered bill — or to approve the multi-bill package delegates will OK later this month. My bet is that senators will go with the House bills, rather than engage in legislative ping-pong.

n What about the education savings accounts? They are designed to help parents pay to send children to private schools. Unions hate the idea, because it diverts money from public schools, they say. Senators may approve that bill, but the House won’t.

n But education savings accounts aren’t a key to charter schools, because public charters authorized under the bill would have to be run by non-profits and could not charge tuition. They would get per-student support from the state.

n Well, what about charters in general? The Senate’s SSA would allow them, but only (with one exception) if county boards of education allow it. What school board wants to allow competition that — let’s face it — could achieve better results? One possibility there is Putnam County, where the board refused to close schools during the two-day strike earlier this year.

The exception is that even if a local board rejects charters, a state college or university could open one in a county. Now, given the fact that state institutions of higher learning receive taxpayers’ money and their charters could get per-pupil financial support, that seems the most likely route for one or two charters to be established. It’s an intriguing idea, given that it would mean the professors who educate budding teachers would have opportunities to try their theories out in the real world.

n How much “betterment” will occur as a result of a new education law? Not much, sad to say. Many of the proposals in both Senate and House are aimed at correcting problems, such as those with funding or small counties, a lack of teachers in certain specialties and areas, and students’ mental health.

State school board members and the Department of Education have high hopes for their own improvement campaign. Whether it will bear fruit remains to be seen.

If it does not, it may be back to the drawing board for legislators — who then will face the issue of whether West Virginia’s state constitution gives control over schools to them or the state board. Precedents say it’s the board.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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