By Lawrence Messina
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin saw his proposed overhaul of public schools clear its first legislative hurdle Tuesday, when the Senate Education Committee endorsed the bill with modest changes to language addressing teacher hiring and the school calendar.
Advanced to Senate Finance on a non-unanimous voice vote, the bill would now also require the Department of Education to cut personnel spending by 5 percent during each of the next two budget years. The committee’s action followed a morning picket by a few dozen people from the teacher and service worker organizations outside the Capitol. Those groups remain opposed to the bill’s key provisions.
“They made a few things around the fringes a little better, but the real sticking points are still in the bill,” said President Judy Hale of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia.
The committee’s amendment arose from several days of closed-door meetings with representatives from these groups as well as Tomblin or his top aides.
“The governor is pleased with the Senate Education Committee substitute of the bill,” Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said. “Many hours of discussion with stakeholders provided for a better bill.”
Tomblin had proposed ensuring 180 days of student instruction annually — already mandated by law but rarely reached mostly because of snow days — by freeing up 12 days now set aside for other uses. The committee’s amendment reserves time within those 12 days for teachers to hold two-hour faculty senate meetings at least four times once school begins. It replaces limits on teacher planning periods with a study due Dec. 31 on the topic.
Lawmakers also removed language that counted attending athletic tournaments and playoffs as instructional days. Tuesday’s changes further make clear that the calendar includes seven paid holidays, and allows counties to add days to their calendars to make up for canceled days.
Senate Education kept the governor’s proposed rewrite of teacher hiring and transfer practices mostly intact. The bill still gives principals a say on hiring, but now forbids them from recommending relatives. Another Tuesday change restores a teacher’s right to count seniority built up within the county when facing a transfer within a school.
The governor had proposed allowing county school boards to repost job vacancies repeatedly to attract qualified candidates. The committee limited that to just one reposting for classroom teaching positions, and then only if fewer than three people applied the first time.
The amended bill would still invite Teach for America into West Virginia classrooms, but no longer identifies that national nonprofit program by name. The committee also limited the temporary teaching certificates the bill would offer program participants to middle and high schools as well as to subjects and areas of the state with critical shortages..
The committee rejected attempts by Sen. Daniel Hall, a Wyoming County Democrat, to remove the revised Teach for America provisions completely and to scale back the teacher hiring and school calendar changes.
The West Virginia Education Association, which represents teachers and administrators, opposes much of the governor’s bill. The rival AFT-WV and its allied group, the state School Service Personnel Association, object to most of it as well. The three united Tuesday for a morning information picket outside the Senate side of the Capitol.
Some protesters carried signs targeting Tomblin, a Democrat, and state Schools Superintendent James Phares. Their ranks included John Estep, who retired after more than 22 years as a Nicholas County classroom teacher. Now active with AFT-WV, Estep denounced the proposed changes to seniority’s role in hiring and transfers as well as the Teach for America provisions.
“We need to get some real educational reform and not this bologna that they’re putting in (Senate Bill) 359,” Estep said. “We’re tired of the students of West Virginia getting crapped on every time the Legislature meets. And that’s what this bill does.”
Hale said the groups will picket outside the state Board of Education when it meets Wednesday. Hale also said opponents will focus on opposing the bill in the House Education Committee.
“I think we’ve done all of the work we can do in the Senate to make the bill better,” Hale said.
Chaired by a retired teacher and lifetime WVEA member, House Education has previously proved a challenging hurdle for both Tomblin and his predecessor. But the 2012 election changed the committee’s makeup while increasing the ranks of its minority Republicans to 11 of 24 seats. At least half the committee or their spouses are current or former educators, however.