CHARLESTON - The West Virginia House of Delegates on Wednesday removed from its education omnibus bill (House Bill 206) the cap of 10 charter schools statewide, replacing it with a cap of three until July 1, 2023, but then allowing three more every three years after that.
The number allowed as the years roll by would be unlimited. If the bill ultimately becomes law, these would be the state's first charter schools.
That amendment was approved on a largely party-line vote, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed. House Education Committee Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said it would allow for a more gradual approach.
Another amendment approved Wednesday nixed the ability for the state Board of Education to turn the state Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, in Romney, into a charter school. Another change added what delegates said was $6 million more in annual funding for student support personnel, like social workers and psychologists.
Rejected were proposed amendments from House Education Committee Vice Chairman Mark Dean, R-Mingo, that would have:
- Allowed county residents to vote on whether to allow charter schools in their county;
- Banned county boards of education from authorizing charter schools until all county board seats held July 1 of this year have been up for reelection;
- Removed charter schools from the bill entirely;
Delegates were still debating amendments to the bill as of press time Wednesday. The amendments debate began around 2:20 p.m., and was still ongoing as of 7 p.m.
The House had yet to take a final vote on the bill, something that was set to occur later Wednesday night.
If it passes, the state Senate will have to agree to send it to Republican Gov. Jim Justice for his approval or veto.
The Senate, which passed its own omnibus version (Senate Bill 1039), could also amend the House bill, further prolonging the special legislative session on education.
Del. Ed Evans, D-McDowell, was among many Democrats who questioned the need for charter schools.
"Why can't we fix what's wrong in the schools we have?" Evans asked.
Del. Tony Paynter, R-Wyoming, advocated for the failed amendment that would have delayed charter school authorizations until after more school board elections.
"Then we know if people outside of Charleston really want charter schools," Paynter said.
HB 206 would also raise public school workers' salaries, increase public school funding generally and do other things.
The House on Wednesday passed legislation (House Bill 158) saying the state school board would be required to create a rule that somehow holds students accountable for their scores on statewide standardized tests. The bill now heads to the Senate. The bill would leave it up to the state board to determine what consequences students would face.
House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, also said Wednesday that the House wouldn't take any action that day on a bill (House Bill 168) that would have given parents money to send their kids to private schools and religious schools.
HB 168 would provide people and companies tax credits if they donate to nonprofit "scholarship-granting organizations." Those organizations, in turn, would have to spend at least 90% of their annual revenue on paying for kids to attend private schools.
The House also hasn't moved Senate Bill 1040, which would create "education savings accounts" vouchers that would've worked similarly, but also provided parents public money to homeschool their kids.
Before the marathon amendment debate Wednesday, 83 members of the public addressed some lawmakers at a 90-minute public hearing.
To the expressed chagrin of many, each speaker was limited to 60 seconds to speak to the education overhaul.
Of the speakers, 70 spoke against the bill and seven spoke in favor. The remaining speakers' positions were unclear.
After a stretch of teachers, parents and citizens criticizing the legislation, Tonya Rinehart used what she called a "visual aid" to protest the time limit. She stuck a piece of duct tape to her mouth while the crowded House chamber sat in silence for roughly 50 seconds.
Written on the tape: "88%." That was a reference to a West Virginia Department of Education report that said 88% of 690 comment card responses at education public forums held across the state this spring disagreed with charter schools.
"Who are you listening to?" asked Nicole McCormick, a teacher and union member. "Because you're not listening to us."
Several speakers said they have family members who have special needs, and argued that charter schools would be used as a means to segregate those children from the rest of the student population.
Some of the supporters of the bill spoke of the need for more choice among parents regarding where their children attend school and criticized the department statistic. Among them, Doug Douglass said he was a part of a "silent majority" of parents who favor charter schools.
Around 11 a.m. Wednesday, when the House floor session began, there were about 40 demonstrators outside the House chamber.
"We're not leaving!" they chanted. Dels. John Shott, R-Mercer, and Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, said early in the day that the chants were interfering with their hearing.
Around 4:50 p.m. Wednesday, about a dozen were left outside the chamber, standing or sitting around in silence. Demonstrators in red and blue shirts still sat in the galleries above the House floor, but there were many empty seats.