CHARLESTON - The House of Delegates passed a comprehensive education reform bill Friday that would change how county school districts hire teachers, free up more days on their calendars to bolster student instruction and require full-week schooling for 4-year-olds statewide.
The legislation was proposed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and introduced by Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall. House members approved the bill by a vote of 95-2, with all delegates representing the Northern Panhandle voting in favor.
The Senate unanimously passed the bill Monday after adding changes sought by teachers' unions, reserving some days in the school calendar for teacher activities and expanding Tomblin's proposed criteria for teacher hiring. As amended, the bill also gives principals and faculty senates a greater say when already-employed educators are among the candidates for a classroom teaching post.
The bill will become law with Tomblin's signature.
State law limits the length of the school year to 43 weeks. Under the new legislation, the limit would be 48 weeks. Also, a minimum of 40 minutes would be provided for elementary school planning periods - up from the current minimum of 30 minutes.
And under the measure, six in-service days currently provided to teachers could be converted to instructional days to make up for school cancellations.
The measure also offers to help teachers with loans, covers the renewal fee for those with national certification and revamps the way the state Department of Education accredits schools and provides professional development.
In perhaps the biggest concession to the unions, the Senate removed language that would have allowed the nonprofit Teach for America program into West Virginia schools. The changes also require the Department of Education to trim non-classroom personnel costs by 5 percent in each of the next two budget years.
The Senate removed the $175,000 salary cap for the state schools superintendent. With the state board seeking to conduct a national search for job candidates, the bill already dropped the requirement that a superintendent's master's degree has to be in education administration.
Delegate Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, was a member of the House Education Audit Work Group charged with examining the Governor's Education Efficiency Audit conducted last year and creating legislation to address concerns raised by the audit.
"What we have is a product, a good starting point everyone can live with," Swartzmiller said. "Being on the work group, I know the audit was large and in-depth, and there were a lot of recommendations.
"At end of day, you can only absorb so much, and to do much more would have been too much to take on. That's why we had so much agreement among the stakeholders. People realized we needed to do something meaningful, but that we shouldn't take on so much," he added.
Swartzmiller acknowledged he would like to see more done in the future to create additional educational options for students not interested in attending college, such as expanding vocational education.
Delegates David Pethtel, D-Wetzel; David Evans, R-Marshall; and Mike Ferro, D-Marshall, all are retired educators.
Pethtel said the legislation represents "a lot of give and take" by the West Virginia Education Association, the West Virginia American Federation of Teachers, school service personnel, chambers of commerce and business and industry councils.
"Over the years, people have been calling for school reform," he said. "One of the good things this bill does is assure 180 days of instruction for students of West Virginia, and it also assures we will be able to get the best qualified teachers in the classroom.
"But it's an ongoing process - not just a one-year deal," he continued. "We will continually be looking at initiatives to improve student achievement and move students forward. We'll come back and look at this bill with the West Virginia Department of Education. Where changes are needed, we'll do that."
Evans believes the provision allowing for a 48-week school year is a good one, and he approves of the teacher hiring policies.
Ferro said he vehemently opposed amendments proposed to the bill in the House, all of which were defeated. He described one proposed amendments as "a veiled attempt at merit pay" and another as "an attempt to start up charter schools" in the state.
"Obviously all the stakeholders got together to work out a compromise bill," he said.
"This is a monumental day," Kessler said. "This is the start of significant education reform efforts that will improve the outcomes and achievement levels for children in our state. ... It represents a significant achievement. Number one, it makes sure students get 180 days of instruction each year, expands the calendar and increases actual fanny-in-the-desks instructional time.
"We will still have to work on truancy and other improvements to the system," he added. "But a year ago, folks said it would never happen."