CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The West Virginia Senate on Monday passed a Republican education plan that would allow the state’s first charter schools, reigniting a debate that helped start a teacher strike earlier this year.
Lawmakers in the GOP-controlled chamber approved the bill 18-15 as part of their special legislative session on education. The bill now moves to the House of Delegates.
The wide-ranging measure includes a teacher pay raise, mental health services for students and a provision that allows county boards to fire educators who strike. Senators separately passed a measure to allow school vouchers called education saving accounts.
Democrats and teachers unions opposed the bills, saying the broad-based education plan is essentially the same proposal that launched a two-day walkout by educators in February that brought dozens of teachers to the statehouse.
“We’re told that this is for students, this is for parents, this is for teachers who want change — not the overwhelming majority that I have listened to for the past couple of months,” said Democratic Sen. Stephen Baldwin, rehashing a familiar critique that Republicans are serving out-of-state interests in their push for charter schools.
Republican Senate President Mitch Carmichael has repeatedly pointed at West Virginia’s poor test scores as proof lawmakers need to act on his education proposal. He has also said he folded several Democratic demands into the bill.
“The reason why we need this bill is because our students rank near last,” he said, gesturing toward a chart he made that details West Virginia’s SAT scores and other education benchmarks.
Educators again came to the Capitol to protest the bills, though their numbers dwindled as senators met over the weekend. On Saturday, they loaded both the gallery inside the chamber and the halls outside, chanting so loud that they penetrated the thick, wooden doors of the Senate and could be heard as lawmakers spoke.
On Monday, their numbers reduced to a fraction, they remained silent as lawmakers voted.
Union leaders have said that having the special session take place in the summer was a move to negate the impact of another teacher strike.
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said Republican senators are ignoring the will of the people.
“All this just shows you is that this is not about what’s best for West Virginia,” he said.
Republican Gov. Jim Justice has said it would be better if the sprawling education plan was broken up into separate proposals so lawmakers would know exactly what they were voting for.
He met with lawmakers of both parties Sunday and told reporters he took issue with a provision of the bill that would cancel school sporting events on days when teachers caused a work stoppage. Senators have left that part of the bill intact and Republicans also voted to strengthen anti-strike language in the measure, a move widely criticized as retaliation for past walkouts by educators.
Justice called the special session after the legislature failed to agree on education before the regular session ended in March. Public forums on education were held statewide, at the end of which the Department of Education released a report opposing school vouchers and questioning the formation of charter schools.
Teachers in West Virginia took to the picket line in February over a similar, complex education bill that tied their pay raise in with the formation of charter schools and school vouchers.
Educators protested outside schools and packed the state Capitol during the two-day walkout. They argued that the bill was retaliation for last year’s nine-day strike over pay raises and health insurance, which kicked off a national wave of teacher unrest.
The House is scheduled to reconvene late this month and is set to take up the Senate-approved plan as well as its own proposals.