This year’s regular session of the WV State Legislature saw a focus on public education that rivaled that of last year. The 2018 session saw a greater focus on education than had been the case for many years.

The biggest ticket item was the “Omnibus Education Bill” (SB 451). You may have followed the intricate progress of this very involved bill. I shall attempt to surmise.

Back in October (before the 2018 election), Governor Jim Justice stood with several Republican members of the State Senate and promised public school teachers, school service workers, and all state employees another five percent pay raise—over and above the five percent they were given in 2018. That’s all that was mentioned.

When the cover was lifted on SB 451, it did include the pay raise for educators and support staff (state employees would be given their five percent raise in the state budget bill). But it also included a number of items that had never been discussed. They were called “education reforms,” and they included private charter schools, education savings accounts (ESSAs), a reduction in tenure for educators, and other punitive measures.

The Senate Education Committee created the bill from nothing, via a process for producing bills called “origination.” There are two ways a bill may be created. One (the usual way) is for a member of the House or Senate to introduce it; another is for a committee to ”originate” it. SB 451 was originated.

Before reporting SB 451 to the full Senate (the “floor” in legislative terminology), the Education Committee decided to send it to the Finance Committee, as a “second reference.” But the Senate leadership discovered that it lacked the votes on Finance to get it to the floor. So, the leadership countermanded that second reference, and had the bill instead referred to a “committee of the whole.” That committee includes the entire Senate membership, and such a vehicle has only been used four times in our state’s history.

Let’s note a lack of planning on the part of Senate leadership, which had apparently known for weeks what was to be in that bill. The entire capitol building knew that the final vote in the full Senate would be 18-16 in favor of the bill. All 14 Democrats and 2 Republicans were adamantly opposed, and 18 Republicans were adamantly in favor. Nobody’s vote would change.

When the bill was originated, it could have been sent straight to the floor, without the second reference to the Finance Committee. Why was it sent there, knowing the votes were not there? And why, when the members of the Finance Committee were appointed by the Senate President, were not enough members favorable to the bill appointed to that committee?

Anyway, the bill the Senate sent to the House underwent serious surgery. Gone were ESSAs, private charters, and the punitive measures. Instead, included in the bill were a provision for a pilot program for public charter schools (which differ from private charters), a revitalization of an existing program called “innovation zones,” and a version of “locality” pay (very important to Eastern Panhandle counties).

The Senate refused to accept the House changes, and refused even to agree to the appointment of a conference committee to see if a compromise could be arranged. Given the choice of the Senate bill or nothing, the House voted for nothing.

—  John represents Jefferson County in the WV House of Delegates—District 67.

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