Tom Miller: Expect House, Senate to differ on education reform bill
The governor's highly-touted legislation to overhaul West Virginia's public education system for elementary and high school students quickly incurred the wrath of the organizations representing teachers when it was simultaneously introduced in both the House of Delegates and State Senate. The reason was simple -- it offers no pay raise for their members.
At a time when budget belt-tightening is a high priority with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, he and legislative leaders can take some comfort in the fact this is not an election year if they truly want to maintain that position in the face of opposition from the leaders of the two main teacher unions.
The first major step on the legislation will come on Thursday of this week when Senate Education Committee Chairman Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, has promised a final vote by that committee on SB359. But Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, who is his vice chairman, said there will be a committee substitute for the original bill that will be up for that vote.
The bill then goes to the Senate Finance Committee, where Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, has indicated he wants to have a vote and send it to the House of Delegates by the 30th day of this legislative session. That would be Thursday, March 14, so that gives him a narrow one-week window to move the bill to a final vote on the Senate floor.
Clearly, this initial vote by all 34 members of the Senate will not be their last consideration of this important legislation. There seems to be little doubt the House of Delegates will come up with a different version of the legislation that is probably going to be more to the liking of key lobbyists like President Dale Lee of the West Virginia Education Association and Judy Hale, president of the West Virginia Federation of Teachers.
Both Lee and Hale are expected to have an opportunity to address the Senate Education Committee with their concerns about the governor's proposed legislation.
Hale didn't mince words when she first saw the bill last week. She said it was "probably the ugliest bill I've seen in 30 years." Both she and Lee realize they have a better chance of convincing the House Education Committee to make the bill more acceptable under the guidance of Delegate Mary Poling, D-Barbour, the committee chair and a retired public school teacher.
These organizations representing teachers insist the governor's bill doesn't tackle the problem, which is state-level bureaucracy. But the governor's public policy director said last week the proposed legislation is designed to remove "obstacles" that "stifle flexibility" and hinder student achievement.
There is already a sense that the bill eventually considered in the House of Delegates will be decidedly different from the Senate version, which will mean that a joint conference committee of five members from both sides will have to iron out a compromise bill. And don't be surprised if it occurs not during the final days but perhaps even the final hours of this session that ends Saturday, April 13.
A separate issue that is under consideration at this legislative session is the movement to combine some of the services between the smaller 55 separate county public school operations. Eight of those county boards of education have less than 1,400 students.
Even more to the point, most of this state's county school districts have been experiencing enrollment declines over the past 20 years. And there are already examples of combining some efforts. Wirt County, one of the state's smallest districts with just over 1,000 students, was looking for a food service director a few years ago and ended up in an arrangement with neighboring Pleasants County.
The two counties share a food service director who works part-time for both counties and the menus for each day's meals in each county are the same. Now there is a push to apply this principle to all of the state's counties -- especially the more rural ones.
The governor has asked the state Board of Education to appoint members to serve on a newly formed "Commission on Small School Systems" that will study the current governance structure of the 55 county boards of education. And a bill to require county boards of education to meet with their regional education agencies has also been introduced in the state Senate.
Chief Justice Brent Benjamin of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals told a joint meeting of both houses of the Legislature last week that the state's drug court program -- begun in 2003 -- is proving to be a success. There are now 20 adult drug courts in the state, covering 30 counties. And there are also 16 juvenile drug courts that serve 20 of the state's 55 counties.
He said the graduation rate for juveniles participating in the drug court program is about 62 percent while 52 percent -- a total of 402 -- of the adults in the drug court program since its inception in 2003 have graduated. He said about 10 percent of these adult graduates end up back in prison compared to 30 percent of other repeat offenders. And the recidivism rate for juvenile drug court graduates is only 14 percent compared with 51 percent for traditional juvenile criminals.
Tom Miller is a retired state government reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He is a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page.
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