CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s Senate bypassed a key committee Monday in advancing major education legislation as a union official declined to rule out mobilizing a teacher protest for the second time in a year.
The Republican-led Senate approved a rare motion by voice vote to skip the finance committee and instead let the entire Senate consider the bill.
Among other things, the bill would create public charter schools, increase elementary school class sizes in public schools, establish savings accounts for families to pay for private school and require teachers to sign off annually on union dues. Supporters of the bill say it seeks to improve student performance. But others say the bill is payback for last year’s strike.
The 144-page bill, which does not have a cost estimate, was approved by the Senate education committee Friday, just over 24 hours after it was unveiled.
Teachers unions and other groups oppose it, saying they were left out of its drafting. Some say the bill is retaliation for the teachers’ strike, a notion contested by Republican Senate President Mitch Carmichael.
Carmichael has said a main intent of the bill is to improve student test scores and performances.
“There’s not a retaliatory bone in anyone’s body here,” Carmichael said Monday. “What we are doing is providing education for the next generation of West Virginians. It’s incredibly important.”
In a statement, Senate Democratic Leader Roman Prezioso said Monday’s procedural move ignores the democratic process while the bill is “a slap in the face aimed at teachers and school service personnel to punish them for standing up for their rights last year.”
Asked if another walkout is possible, West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said Monday, “everything is on the table.”
The move to have the entire Senate act as a committee has been done just twice before, in 1917 and 1961, said Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha.
The move was an indication the bill did not have enough support in the finance committee, although Carmichael refused to concede that. He said the bill also won’t be heard by the Senate judiciary committee, which would have been another duplicative step.
Having the entire Senate as a committee “is, quite frankly, a great way to approach this overhaul,” he said.
Katrina Minney, an English teacher at Sissonville High School, said teachers need to be a part of that discussion.
“This bill is going to hurt our students,” she said. “It hurts public education. And yes, it affects teachers as well. We’re going to do whatever we have to do. Hopefully that will be coming to the table and talking with these lawmakers. I don’t know why they decided to leave West Virginia teachers out of this. But it would definitely be useful and I think make a lot more sense to include them.”
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said earlier this month he opposes charter school legislation and wants to keep public education a centerpiece. A spokesman for the governor’s office didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment on the bill.
“If the governor has expressed opposition to particular components of the bill, that’s his prerogative,” Carmichael said.
West Virginia teachers won a 5 percent pay raise following a nine-day strike last year. Another 5 percent raise is included in the current bill.
Last year’s strike was the start of walkouts that spread to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona and Los Angeles. In neighboring Virginia, thousands of teachers and supporters on Monday protested what they’re calling unfairly low pay and inadequate education spending.