Education policy is generating a lot of buzz at the capitol and muscling its way onto the 2019 legislative agenda as lawmakers prepare for the 2019 session opening this week.
Points of debate during the session will include another pay raise for the state’s teachers, tuition-free community and technical colleges, the void of noncertified classroom teachers and a funding source for the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
At Friday’s West Virginia Press Association Legislative Lookahead in Charleston, lawmakers said Gov. Jim Justice’s promise of $100 million for a two-year fix for PEIA funding is on the agenda, but the money must come via legislation that must pass through the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
And teachers have plans in place.
When Justice gives his third State of the State address at the capitol on Wednesday, the first day in the 60-day session, teachers and school personnel will conduct a “walk-in.”
The planned action comes the year after a nine-day teacher walkout that closed schools across the state and resulted in a 5 percent pay hike for all public employees and a promise to fix PEIA.
Del. Vernon Criss, R-Wood, vice chairman of the House Finance Committee, said if Justice is planning to stick with his promise of the $100 million fix for PEIA, he must outline it in his budget he is set to present on Wednesday.
“We will have to take a look at it and see what we can do. We will have to make a plan,” Criss said.
Justice’s PEIA Task Force, formed in April, has produced ideas and recommendations to offer a permanent fix to PEIA, aside from Gov. Justice’s promise of $100 million, but some say the effort is weak.
Del. Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, said nothing the governor and task force have done or proposed fixes PEIA.
“In fact what has been proposed to this point has PEIA going belly up in 2021,” Bates said. “Until we make the funding a priority and commit to ponying up an additional $50 million a year, stabilizing the program for its members will continue to be an annual fight – a fight that I think everyone is tired of having, but is not going away by tinkering around the edges of the program and problem.”
Bates said public education in the form of state aid to public schools every year is the single-largest investment made in West Virginia, accounting for over $2 billion in the state’s approximately $4 billion general revenue budget.
“This session, my focus will remain ensuring those dollars are well spent and directed toward the students and teachers in the classroom.”
Bates said this goes hand in hand with finding a permanent fix for PEIA and the second 5 percent pay raise promised.
“It will be difficult to get any agreement of any kind of structural reform in public education until those commitments are filled as promised,” he said.
During Friday’s lookahead, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said the Senate is 100 percent committed to another 5 percent pay raise for all state employees. He said the raise will come will ensuring the school system continues to work to produce better results because West Virginia test scores continue to drop.
“We have to make sure our students are prepared to work in a 21st century economy. We want to see our students succeed among others across America,” Carmichael said.
Also in this session, Carmichael said he is planning to bring back his bill from 2018’s legislative session on providing free tuition to community and technical colleges throughout the state. The Senate passed the bill last year, but it was sidelined in the House once the public employee pay raise took center stage.
Carmichael explained his free tuition program would require those who want to be involved to pass a drug test, do community service work and work in the state after they graduate for a certain period of time. If participants choose to leave West Virginia before the designated amount of time, they would have to pay the tuition to the state — all of which are checkpoints throughout the program, he explained.
“We have among the lowest workforce participation rate in America, and the lowest education attainment levels in America,” Carmichael explained. “If you’re not aspiring a college level education, but have a skill set for the workforce, those are great jobs this economy needs.”
He said the proposed program is being utilized in several states, and is an opportunity for the state at a very inexpensive level — less than a $10 million investment.
Bates told The Register-Herald a number of his Democratic House colleagues would like to expand on Carmichael’s program for community and technical colleges to a “promise for all” program – for students outside of the CTC field, which he hopes will gain support throughout the upcoming session.
A panel based only on education also took place at Friday’s lookahead, in which State Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine stressed the importance of finding a fix to the state’s extreme math teacher shortage.
According to Paine, 20 percent of teachers in the state who teach algebra are not certified in the subject, 25 percent of geometry teachers aren’t certified, and the same goes for Math 1, in which 25 to 30 percent are not certified.
“That’s a serious problem. We must do better,” Paine said.
For those noncertified math teachers, Paine said during this upcoming legislative session, officials will be working to develop a strategy to get those teachers a content booster and possibly an additional pay stipend.
“Extraodinary circumstances call for extraordinary actions,” Paine said. “We have to think of incentives.”
Another educational crisis taking place in the state’s schools is an attendance issue, Paine said. He said 50 percent of schools in the state have a chronic attendance problem, and 20 percent of students have missed 18 or more days this school year so far.
With poor student attendance comes poor teacher attendance, too, said Paine, in regard to teachers using an abundance of their personal time-off days. During this year’s legislative session, Paine said he hopes legislators will put into law incentives for teachers who save their time-off days and use them in their retirement.
“We are in a crisis, and we need to fix it.”
Paine hinted at the possibility of Justice addressing the teacher shortage in the State of the State address.
When asked what education reforms will be brought forward this legislative session that the state could have faith in, Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said legislators need to ask the experts.
“Ask the teachers. See what we need to get them from here to there,” Lee said. “I’m sure if we gave them the time and resources they need, they will go beyond just there, because that’s how good our educators in West Virginia are.
“We need to know what they are missing. We need to ask them what they need.”
Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, who was recently appointed chairwoman of the state Senate Education Committee, was not able to attend Friday’s lookahead, but told The Register-Herald prior to the event that her three main goals for the session were:
• More competition, locality pay
• Giving teachers a bigger voice
• More county-level policy-making
Rucker said she believes teachers are fleeing to teach in counties just right over the state line due to the increase in pay offered. She said locality pay in the state could offer more healthy competition.
“We have to compete with these other states. Our teachers are leaving to teach there, and if more effort was taken on the local level for a higher pay, we may not see that problem,” Rucker said.
Rucker explained her first goal ties in with her last two — giving teachers more of a voice and policy-making on the county level.
“If there are local efforts to increase pay, teachers are speaking out more. They’ll have more of a voice. They’ll let us know what it is they need.”
Rucker explained county school boards should have more of an opportunity to administer individualized policies that work for their county and schools.
“If we offer more of a voice on a local level, I think we will see better results in our schools. What works at one school in one county may not work for another school in another county,” she said. “Teachers and administrators know what works best for their students at their school.
“We need to listen to what they need, and I hope to work on that during this session.”
Rucker’s appointment has drawn concerns from state education groups. Leaders with the West Virginia Education Association and AFT-West Virginia have pointed to Rucker’s support of homeschooling and position on vaccine requirements.
Immediately following Rucker’s appointment, educational union officials saw conflict with her new role as chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, saying she focused on “controversial and divisive issues that do little to advance public schools” due to her stance on vaccination standards and homeschooling.
Rucker homeschooled her own children, and has supported bills allowing for more exemptions to vaccine requirements. She told The Register-Herald the homeschooling of her children was based upon what was best for her children at the time.
“Parents know what is best for their children. Choosing to homeschool my own children doesn’t mean I’m against public education,” she said. “It was just what was right for my children at the time.
“I am a product of the public school system and even taught for a period of time in public schools myself. I see the importance in public education, and I will continue to work on the side of public education during this session.”
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