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Talking With West Virginians About Our Schools

The 2019 Regular Session of the Legislature has wrapped up, and as a lot of us do at this time every year — in addition to resting up a little — we take a bit of an inventory of wins and losses from the previous two months.

There’s no doubt that getting SB 1 across the finish line is a giant win. I’m convinced that this bill will do amazing things for the Northern Panhandle. As our economy continues to grow with both high-tech jobs and work in our natural gas industry, it’s critical that we make career and workforce training a priority. Traditional, four-year college educations are not for everybody. Companies want and need a trained, reliable, and drug-free workforce, and there are great careers with great salaries right here in the Ohio Valley that are available with just a two-year degree or certification. I look forward to Governor Justice signing the bill and making our vision a reality.

While that feels good, I can’t help but reflect a little bit about what I believe we lost when Senate Bill 451, the Senate’s comprehensive education reform package, failed to even get off the ground in the House. In hindsight, it seems like it was doomed from the start, weighed down by a strong campaign of fear and misinformation. Only after the bill died did many of us in the Senate hear from county superintendents, Board of Education members, and teachers who were suddenly realizing at what they’d just lost.

“We didn’t know,” they’d tell us. “That’s not how it was described to us.”

Fortunately, our governor has realized that we cannot delay improving our state’s public education system. Last week, he called the Legislature into a special session to deal specifically with all of these issues, but this time, we’ve got a little breathing room and none of the other pressing issues of the normal session.

Oh, and rest assured, taxpayers — let me clear this up right now: This is a special session that will largely be spent here at home, spending time with the people who want us to know how they see the future of education in our state. In fact, we won’t even go back to Charleston until we’ve spent enough time back in our districts to be able to develop bills that fully gather input and feedback from the people on the ground.

We’re spending time listening and informing, so that we can prevent another wave of good being lost in the imaginary. And, it gives those people who were in largest opposition to these measures — the state’s teachers unions — every opportunity in the world to contribute to the conversation beyond sound bites.

In recent weeks, the leaders of the state’s teachers unions have taken a new angle in their struggle to come up with reasons why they’re opposed to any kind of education reform. The narrative has now shifted to their belief that SB 451 was created without any input from classroom teachers, parents, administrators, and families. While that’s simply not true, with a reform effort of this magnitude, it’s better to err on the side of more input than less.

That’s why the flexibility of this extraordinary session is so critical. Governor Justice has given us the ability to convene, recess right away, and go back to our communities and spend time with the people on the ground. We can take the time to visit schools and classrooms. We’ll be able to meet with concerned parents. We can see first hand the impact that public education directly has on everybody who lives in their community, not just the students, parents, and teachers.

But it just won’t be the provisions of SB 451 that are up for discussion during the special session. Because the governor has made the call for this special session so broad, we’ll have the ability to go beyond just what was in that bill and take the feedback we receive over the next few months and use it to repeal, update, and take a look at the massive book titled “West Virginia School Laws.” We’ll also be able to expand programs that have proven themselves in some parts of the state, like the Expanded School Mental Health Program, and see if we can expand it statewide.

Would the Senate have preferred to get all of this work over and done with during the course of the regular 60-day session? Absolutely. We believed that SB 451 delivered what we promised: A package that was focused on creating student success, gave parents the freedom to purse options that they believed would best education their children, and made significant investments in teachers and county school systems to ensure we give them the resources to achieve. Sadly, a majority of members of the House of Delegates became so lost in the panic over the hypothetical, they let it become the enemy of the real change we could have made with that bill.

We owe it to our state’s children to give them every chance at success possible. We also know that change of any kind — especially change this big — is intimidating and scary. That’s why we’re hoping to talk to you.

It’s a cooperative process and a two-way street. Our teachers are amazing, and we need to do better to help them focus on what matters. I hope that with productive conversations across the state, we’ll come back ready to make that change.

Senator Weld represents the 1st Senatorial District and serves as the Senate Majority Whip and the Vice Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the West Virginia State Senate.  He is also an attorney with the firm of Spilman, Thomas & Battle in their Wheeling office. 


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