CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A complex education bill vehemently opposed by West Virginia teachers’ unions that claim it is a payback for a strike last year has passed the state Senate by a slim margin.
The bill, approved by the Republican-led Senate on Monday, now goes to the GOP-led House of Delegates.
Teachers’ unions plan to hold votes in the coming week to authorize statewide action against the bill if necessary, including a strike. Many say the bill is an attack on the public education system and that teachers were not consulted about the bill’s components, which includes plans to open charter schools and would require teachers to sign off annually on union dues.
The national “Red4Ed” movement began last year with a nine-day strike in West Virginia. It moved to Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, Washington state, and Los Angeles, where teachers scored a major victory last month after a six-day strike.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has vowed to veto the bill. Justice and others have sought to have the bill’s components be considered separately.
Eighteen of the 34 senators spoke out during a two-hour debate before the vote.
“I know that quality education is the greatest gift we can give our children,” said Senate education committee chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson. “This may be the most important thing that we’ve ever done.”
Senate President Mitch Carmichael has said a main intent of the bill is to improve student test scores and performance.
Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, read a 2010 letter from then-Gov. Joe Manchin urging bold, innovative changes in the state’s education system to help students improve their success rates.
“The time has come where we can wait no longer,” Blair said. “Our children deserve it.”
Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell and a bill opponent, compared the legislation to the Titanic.
“You’re not going to like the way this story ends,” he said.
Republicans who voted for the bill expanded on the comparison.
“Multiple breakdowns in a system require multiple repairs, not rearranging curtains on a Titanic that holds our children,” said Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam.
Some Democrats said the bill didn’t get teacher input and doesn’t address students who live in drug-infested homes where parents don’t participate in their children’s education. Sen. Paul Hardesty, a former county school board member, compared the bill to a 10-foot Christmas tree in an eight-foot room.
“It does not fit and it will not work,” he said.
Republicans have promoted the bill’s ability to transfer control to the county level. The bill also would establish savings accounts for families to pay for private school and allow county board of educations to increase property tax levy rates, which would first require voter approval. The bill also includes another 5 percent pay raise for teachers but also has a clause that would invalidate the entire bill if any part is struck down.