By Mannix Porterfield
Tracks are greased and the education reform train is barreling toward the station for swift passage Friday.
All that needs to be done is the routine parliamentary order of reading a bill three times, and that should be wound up by the end of the week, just as Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, predicted a week ago.
The last big stop before hitting the House floor was an exhaustive afternoon work session by the education committee, which gave Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s compromised package its unanimous blessing.
Barring an unforeseen snafu, the bill will be read a first time today, the second time Thursday, when amendments may be offered, with a vote on Friday.
One Republican leader thinks the House is moving too swiftly and says delegates need to scrutinize it even further.
“It’s on the fast track now,” Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.
“We still have most of a month left in session. We ought to give everyone adequate time to look it over and determine what their position is and whether there needs to be amendments on it.”
Republicans haven’t decided if they plan to attempt to alter the bill, but for them, time is running out, as well.
“I’m not sure it necessarily needs to be slowed down, but it shouldn’t be on a fast track, either,” Armstead said.
“It should run the course of the process and let people have the opportunity to talk to their constituents about it.”
Delegate Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh, a retired teacher in Beckley, and Delegate Dave Perry, D-Fayette, another former educator, endorsed the measure, while acknowledging it could stand improvement.
While she was disappointed the measure doesn’t address a leading concern, that of top-heaviness at the state level — as recommended in the Tomblin-ordered special audit — Sumner said it should improve student achievement by requiring reading ability by the third grade and 180 days of instruction.
Sumner also was pleased that the bill allows for a return to vocational/technical training at the middle school level.
“I think if we can implement, hopefully, all of the parts, it will be successful,” she said.
“I think it will definitely help student achievement and attendance. If you can improve a child’s reading ability by the third grade, they’re going to want to come to school. They’re going to want to stay in school. As far as the intent for student achievement, it’s a good bill.”
Perry, who served on a special panel named by Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, in advance of the session to examine the audit, said the bill is like any other in one regard, “It has its good parts and bad parts.”
“But I think it definitely answers some of the questions that have been posed by the public over the last few years,” said Perry, a retired principal at Collins Middle School in Oak Hill.
“And it definitely incorporated some things our special committee did in terms of 180 days, in terms of the hiring criteria, in terms of guaranteeing third graders and fourth graders and pre-school. At the end of the day, I think we’ve got a bill that everyone can live with and has agreed to.”
Tomblin outlined his goals for public education in the State of the State address, and soon followed up with a massive bill that immediately rankled two groups representing West Virginia teachers.
In marathon talks last week and through Monday morning, however, a compromise eventually was hammered out.
Generally speaking, both the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers came on board, with some lingering disagreements.
The unions were pleased that the measure abandons the controversial Teach For America element, which they viewed as an effort to hire unqualified teachers.
Another concession creates equally weighted hiring criteria that now must include input from the faculty senates with pay at the daily rate during the process. The bill stipulates that a school board must hire a teacher if the faculty senate, principal and superintendent are in accord on the best qualified candidate.
As for the school calendar, long a source of contention in the Legislature, SB359 provides schools have 48 weeks — not the 43 in code now — to get the required 180 days of instruction in.
Another feature allows for six outside days to be required as part of the 20 non-instructional calendar days. Such days must be available for instruction when classes are canceled.
Shortly after the Senate cleared the bill Monday on a 34-0 tally, Tomblin expressed confidence it would “truly make a difference in classrooms” across West Virginia.
“When I proposed my comprehensive plan for education reform, I laid out five key goals to raise student achievement and improve our education system,” the governor said.
“I’m pleased all of my goals remain intact and I look forward to working with members of the House and stakeholders in the coming days. I believe, together, we can improve student achievement in West Virginia.”
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