We are just past the halfway point of the sixty-day State Legislative Session. The issue that has received the most attention this year has been the education reform bill, Senate Bill 451. The bill originated in the senate, and the entire senate membership considered it in an unusual but proper setting known as “a committee of the whole”. That means that all thirty-four members of the Senate got to hear testimony of experts in all aspects of the bill.
The bill passed the Senate with provisions for another pay raise for teachers averaging about $2,100 a year, a pay raise for service personnel averaging around $1,100 a year, a $250 tax credit per year for teachers and school service personnel for buying school supplies for students, and a $500 bonus for using fewer than four sick days per year. The bill also provides for approximately $24 million dollars for additional school support personnel including social workers, school nurses and psychologists.
In efforts to improve educational opportunities for students, the bill included the possibility of establishing up to six public charter schools statewide, and education savings accounts for up to two thousand five hundred students. This could be considered the reform part of this education bill. West Virginia is one of only six states with no charter schools, and we could join about six states to begin offering education savings accounts.
I have been generally supportive of the Senate provisions. On Saturday Senator Eric Tarr and I attended a teacher’s town hall meeting in Point Pleasant, which was organized by union members, to discuss the bill. We met at the library; about fifty teachers attended. The meeting was a good opportunity to hear and address concerns, and to also present the alternatives which may improve educational outcomes for students.
While I don’t think Senator Tarr or I changed anyone’s mind Saturday, I have had conversations with parents, students, and some teachers who are supportive of education choice because they know that some students do better in alternative settings. They also know that competition improves education outcomes for students in traditional public schools. One parent sent a peer reviewed West Virginia University study to me that was specific to West Virginia; it was adjusted for family income, teacher salary, money spent on education, attendance, and other factors. The conclusion is that competition improves outcomes for all students. Expert testimony in committee verified that nationwide studies showed the same results.
On the House side I have been one of only two delegates to be a member of both committees that worked through this legislation. I have consistently been supportive of every aspect of the bill, including the education savings accounts, the charter schools, additional funding for key personnel, and the pay raises. The bill has changed many times throughout the legislative process.
I have supported education savings accounts because they would provide parents, the opportunity to access many innovative ways to educate their children, including but not limited to, tutoring, private schooling, virtual learning, and any combination of those. This provision would also allow students to carry savings forward for technical schools, or college. This would be possible at only about one third the cost to taxpayers. Currently the annual cost per student in traditional public school is nearly twelve thousand dollars; the education savings account model allocates just over three thousand dollars per eligible student. Traditional public schools would continue to receive a portion of the funds even though the student would not be there.
I support opportunities for charter schools because they represent an opportunity for public education that students do not have now. This legislation would not force a charter school upon any community; they could be formed only with approval of a county school board, and the community. This could be a way of saving our small community schools. West Virginia charter schools would also qualify for receipt of a portion of about four hundred million dollars in federal grant money this year. Qualifications for teachers, curriculum, transportation, and every aspect of operation would be part of the application and would have to be approved by the local county school board. There is also close oversight as the school operates; all education standards and testing would be the same as those for traditional public schools.
A couple other items of local interest are the passage from the Technology and Infrastructure Committee of a bill to prohibit the blockage of railroad crossing on private roads into communities. This was to address an ongoing issue in Apple Grove that was brought to my attention. That bill now goes to the Judiciary Committee.
A bill to exempt the sales tax on equipment installed on vehicles for mobility of disabled people also passed the House of Delegates, and now goes to the Senate. This would be for equipment like wheel chair lifts attached on a van. The idea for this bill was brought to me by a Mason County resident.
I have been blessed to have many Mason County students join me here as they participate in the House of Delegates Page Program. I appreciate all the prayers from home, and I ask that everyone continue to pray for every member here. It is an honor to serve you.
Respectfully, Delegate Jim Butler
Jim Butler (R-Gallipolis Ferry), represents the 14th District in the House of Delegates.