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Teachers eye a full-court press on education bill

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March 14 marks the 30-day, halfway point of the regular legislative session, but the biggest piece of policy still has quite the journey to become a law.

Education stakeholders have gotten on a first-name basis with Senate Bill 359, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education bill. 

Those industry representatives have crammed the committee room each of the four times it has shown up on the Senate Education Committee agenda so far. A committee substitute to the bill passed that committee by a voice vote with four lawmakers recording "no" votes. 

The American Federation of Teachers — West Virginia, West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association planned an informational picket about the bill March 12, and then another March 13 before the West Virginia Board of Education scheduled meeting.

While whispers of a possible teacher strike wafted through the air during the picket, representatives from the organizations all said that's a move they're not making just yet, but they're not letting up, either.

Fighting Words

"They want to talk about teachers getting paid for 200 days a year – don't they get paid for 60 days of a full session?" asked West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee. 

The gloves may not be off, but the parties are circling in the ring.

"People are very unhappy, and there are a lot of things being thrown around out there, but this is the first step in the process," Lee said.

Prior to the March 12 meeting, Lee seemed to know the unions were about to get overruled, saying at that point his day was a lot better than it would be in an hour.

"There are some major sticking points still there," Lee said after the Senate committee moved the bill. "I thought we'd made some progress on those, only to find that progress eliminated on Monday.

"I'm very disappointed in that, and I thought that we had good talks."

Lee said the four main "sticking points," that remain in the committee substitute for the bill are teacher planning periods, teacher hiring, alternative teacher certification that still would allow Teach for America instructors and the school calendar.

"And there are other things," Lee said. "It really doesn't address student achievement, such as truancy, collaboration time for teachers, parental involvement, strengthening our mentorship program … these things will make a difference for student achievement."

Lee said some changes to the bill were for the better, though — paid holidays, the language that would keep instructional days from being made up on Saturdays.

"A rose by any other name is still a rose, and this one has major thorns for us," Lee said.

AFT-1 President Judy Hale said after the bill passed the education committee that if lawmakers wanted "real" education reform, they would be doing the kinds of things happening through the Reconnecting McDowell project.

"This is not an education reform bill — this is a teacher bashing bill," Hale said. "There is very little in this bill that will raise academic achievement."

Passing the First Step

The bill received four "no" votes in the committee, from Sen. Robert Beach, D-Monongalia, Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, and Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley.

Hall proposed three amendments that all failed by voice votes. He attempted to tinker with the hiring process, the calendar and Teach for America. Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, also proposed an amendment to tweak the planning periods, and his amendment failed.

Carmichael said he knows the planning period is a valuable part of a teacher's day, but he said he wanted counties making the decisions about them rather than the state.

Committee members asked several questions to clarify parts of the committee substitute, and the meeting clocked in right at about an hour, which was the allotted time for the meeting room. A second meeting was penciled in for 5 p.m. March 12, but it was called off after the 2 p.m. meeting adjourned.

More Work to Go

Tomblin's public policy director, Hallie Mason, has been the administration's point person on the bill.

After the vote, Mason said they were "pleased."

"The Senate Education Committee worked very hard on this bill and invited the governor's office to deliberate," she said. "We met for hours upon hours with the stakeholders, and we're very pleased.

"We look forward to continuing to work on the bill."

Mason said her office has heard from a variety of people about the bill, and not all of them are unhappy.

"There may be a group that are unhappy with the bill, but I would not blanketly say it's everyone," she said.

The bill's next stop is the Senate Finance Committee, where it is expected to quickly pass to the full Senate for a floor vote. After that, the House of Delegates will have its way with the measure.

Lee said the teacher and service personnel groups would continue to have discussions with the Senate. The WVEA posted to its "Lobbyline" on its website March 12 a push for members to continue calling Senate members, to thank the senators who voted against 

the bill in the committee and to ask others to vote against the bill when it comes up in the full Senate.

"Some of your senators will get a second chance to do the right thing," the memo reads. 

Lee, who is in his fifth year of lobbying the Legislature for WVEA, said this session already feels like the longest of his career.

"I feel like we've worked on this at least two years in these 26 days," Lee said. "It's amazing this is not even the halfway point."

Senate Education Committee Substitute:

Some of the changes the Senate Education Committee's adopted substitute to Senate Bill 359 include:

  •  The Office of Education Performance would have flexibility to look at things such as student achievement;
  • The state superintendent would be required to have a master's degree in any field from a regionally accredited institution of higher education or an equivalent degree as determined by the state board; the superintendent's $175,000 salary cap would be removed;
  • The state superintendent would be required to reduce the budgeted amount for personal services by 5 percent for Fiscal Year 2014-2015;
  • The voluntary early childhood education program would be full days for five days per week along with a caveat that parents could withdraw their children from the program for good cause by notifying the district;
  • The seven holidays already in the school calendar are explicitly explained as paid holidays;
  • Faculty senates would be required every 45 instructional days;
  • The 43-week requirement to reach 200 days of employment would be removed; snow days would be required to be made up either on non-instructional days or out-of-calendar days, and teachers would not be paid for snow days; their pay periods would not change, but they would not get additional salary for making up out-of-calendar days;
  • Language that previously allowed the state board to permit student attendance at West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission events as instructional time was removed;
  • Would prohibit principals from recommending anyone related to him or her for employment;
  • Would allow certificate holders to teach in subject areas and geographic areas the state board defines as critical shortage areas; would only permit instructors who only have certificates to teach in middle and high schools; Teach for America instructors would qualify, and the state board would be required to determine if any other programs would be designated within the National Teacher Corps;
  • Teacher job postings may be reposted one additional time if the first post receives fewer than three applicants; any other positions may be posted as many times as necessary;
  • The state board would perform a study on planning periods and report back to the Legislature.