West Virginia governor signs omnibus education bill

Published: Jun. 28, 2019 at 6:02 PM EDT
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Gov. Jim Justice has signed an omnibus education bill that opens the way for West Virginia’s first charter schools.

The bill includes a variety of proposed changes to the education system, including pay raises, charter schools, increased support personnel for schools, open enrollment, incentives to fill in-demand positions and financial support for small or struggling counties.

“Looking at the bill in its entirety – with all of its many, many great pieces that help our children and our teachers – there is truly so much good that will benefit teachers, students, and all West Virginians,” Justice stated.

“I am really pleased with where we got to at the end of the day and I commend the Senate and the House for working with me to come to a compromise that will result in a big win for the entire education community and all West Virginians.”

Justice has not embraced charter schools but says he is OK by starting with a small number.

The bill allows for three charter schools initially then three more in 2023, then three more every three years.

Charters could be established by 501(c) organizations that apply to county school boards, would could approve or reject the proposals. Charter schools would be exempt from many state regulations but run the risk of losing their charters if they can’t sustain their standards.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, praised Justice for signing the bill. The Senate’s Republican majority has pushed for months for an omnibus bill to change West Virginia’s education system.

“I thank Governor Justice for choosing the students of West Virginia today by signing House Bill 206. The Senate has been a strong advocate for comprehensive education reform from the beginning, and this bill is a positive first step,” Carmichael stated.

“I believe that West Virginia’s children, teachers, and families are as gifted and talented as any in the world. These changes will help provide the world-class education our students deserve, and it will give our teachers and counties the local control they want and need. I am excited to see what the future holds for our great state and our schools.”

Concerns about charter schools and other aspects of the bill such as open enrollment prompted opposition by teachers unions.

Both the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association sent letters to Justice, asking him to veto the bill.

“This bill will soon reach your desk and while it may have several good provisions, the final language still contains charter schools and the erosion of employee rights,” wrote WVEA President Dale Lee.

“To the education employees of our state this bill is still unacceptable.”

The AFT letter, written along with the AFL-CIO, expressed the same sentiment.

“While this legislation contains some provisions that educators and parents would support, those positive elements were needlessly lumped together with a measure to create charter schools in a politically-motivated and cynical attempt to force lawmakers to vote against the will of their constituents,” the unions stated in a letter signed by AFT-WV President Fred Albert.

The Governor’s Office had considered and then abandoned a series of ceremonial bill signing events at local schools around the state on Monday.

People who oppose the bill were making their own plans to show up and protest.

This is the culmination of months of back-and-forth. Justice got the ball rolling last October when he gathered with Republican legislators to announce the second pay raise in two years for teachers and other public employees.

When the regular legislative session began, the Senate majority bundled the pay raise in the first version of the omnibus bill, drawing immediate criticism from teachers unions.

That bill bounced back and forth between legislative chambers, undergoing several changes before finally being tabled in the House of Delegates.

Justice then announced a special session on education “betterment.” It started with public forums around the state.

When the Senate started its special session, it rolled out another omnibus bill.

Justice initially praised the bill in a news release but then was critical of several aspects of the bill and questioned whether the special session was on the right track.

“I think being here is not any good. I think we’re spending taxpayer dollars. We should have already figured this out,” Justice said June 2. “And I don’t think it’s any good.”

The House set aside the Senate’s version and produced its own. That came about after continued talks with the governor and with Senate leadership.

The Senate then passed that version this past Monday.

When it did, Justice again praised the effort.

“I applaud the @wvsenate for passing the education bill tonight,” Justice’s account tweeted Monday. “This is the correct resolution that aids our teachers, students, and all those in the education community and I look forward to signing it.”