The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 22, 2013

Education bill set for final approval today

CHARLESTON — Republican-led efforts to create charter schools, wipe out some bureaucrats at the state level and let teachers vie for merit pay collapsed Thursday, setting the stage for final approval of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s education reform package.

Two other Republican amendments likewise failed.

One would impose a $175,000 cap on the state superintendent’s annual paycheck and allow electronic textbooks for students.

For nearly two hours, delegates engaged in a verbal tug-of-war over the five amendments, and near the end, it was apparent that patience was growing thin.

Toward the end, Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha, scolded the GOP delegates for the marathon session, saying if their amendments were so critical to them, they should have offered them when SB359 was taken up by the House Education Committee.

Minority Leader Tim Armstead’s response was both swift and predictable, saying he found this “offensive.”

Moreover, the bill isn’t, as Guthrie insisted, an agreed-to bill, and none is, in fact, “until the numbers come up on this board,” Armstead, R-Kanawha, shot back.

Armstead kicked off the amendment battle with his amendment to improve the administrator /student ratio in West Virginia to one for every 2,000 students by 2016, his way of addressing the top-heaviness in the state Board of Education.

In current practice, he said, there is an administrator for every 419.3 students — a ratio second only to Alaska.

In Maryland, the ratio is one per 1,543.8 students, Kentucky has a ratio of one for each 1,214.3 students, and in Ohio, it’s one per 3,130, and one for every 4,645 in Virginia, and one per 3,626.8 in Pennsylvania, he said.

“Throughout the (governor’s efficiency) audit, you see many references to the fact that we have a top-heavy system that does not allow the type of local control that we all talk about that we need to have in our education system,” he said.

Before his amendment fizzled on a 44-52 vote, Education Chair Mary Poling, D-Barbour, pointed out SB359 contains a provision to cut the Board of Education staff by 5 percent this year and a like amount a year from now.

What’s more, she noted, Tomblin’s recent budget adjustment imposed a 7.5 percent cut on all agencies, including the BOE.

Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, ignited a firestorm by calling for a $1,000 merit pay boost, if teachers agree to be evaluated, regardless of whether they pass, based 50 percent on classroom success, and 25 percent each in administrator/peer observation and student surveys.

A $1,500 bonus would come on top of that if student achievement is enhanced, he said.

Poling, however, suggested this would create a conflict with a new teacher evaluation process that will be fully implemented next year, applicable to all instructors.

Much of the debate focused on Lane’s proposal to base part of a teacher’s evaluation on student survey.

At a recent 50th anniversary with his high school classmates, Delegate Larry Williams, D-Preston, shared anecdotes from his boyhood.

“Some said the teachers they really liked in high school turned out to be the ones that really didn’t help them the most,” he said.

Yet, the ones who taught them math, English and science were exceedingly tough on him, Williams said.

“They didn’t like them in high school but as time went on, they decided they were the best teachers and did the best for him,” he said.

Merit pay fell by the wayside, 20-75, just after Lane hurled one final pitch, “I’m not saying teachers are bad. Let’s use the most effective method of determining who the most effective teachers are.”

Minority Whip Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, touched off another round of fireworks by calling for charter schools — a divisive issue that led to some serious debate a few winters ago in the Senate.

In his plan, 60 percent of the teachers must vote to approve a charter and such schools must see an upswing in student achievement or forfeit their charter.

“We’ve tried to Leave No Child Behind,” Cowles said. “We’ve tried to Race to the Top. We’ve been waiting for Superman.”

Prefacing his rebuttal with an apology to all the grammarians in the chamber, Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell, declared, “Charter ain’t smart.”

Moore criticized the concept, saying their very nature gives such schools the ability to foster acts of discrimination, and they put profits ahead of education.

“They don’t want anything that costs money,” he said, “because the bottom line is profit.”

Nearly a dozen of them failed in Ohio, bowing to fraud and mismanagement, Moore said.

“They’re not interested in educating your children and student achievement,” he insisted. “The bottom line to them is profit, and stuffing their pockets with money.”

Cowles struck out on an 18-78 vote.

Batting with him were Delegates Roy Cooper, R-Summers, Karen Arvon, R-Raleigh, Joe Ellington and Marty Gearheart, both R-Mercer, and John O’Neal, R-Raleigh.

Southern lawmakers opposing charter schools were Delegates Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, Ray Canterbury, R-Greenbrier, Josh Nelson, R-Boone, Dave Perry, Margaret Staggers and John Pino, all D-Fayette, John Shott, R-Mercer, David Walker, D-Clay, and Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh.

Failing on a 26-70 tally was a fourth amendment by Delegate Cindy Frich, R-Monongalia, to cement an existing $175,000 salary cap for the state superintendent. Under SB359, that maximum is scratched. The superintendent currently gets $165,000.

Frich pointed out the governor is paid less — $150,000 a year.

When her amendment was rebuked, Frich imparted a none-too-subtle shot at the bill’s supporters, among them the two teacher unions, which left letterhead epistles in the chamber, warning the bill must be passed without amendments, and that votes on proposed ones would be recorded.

“I don’t see too many pay raises for teachers in the bill,” she said.

Her amendment drew support from Nelson, the first Republican ever to win a House seat in Boone County, who spoke of his mother working her way through college to get an education degree and now is among the nation’s lowest paid teachers.

There is no way he can understand how anyone who voted against a superintendent’s pay cap in Charleston “while teachers back home are making pennies,” Nelson said.

A final amendment, offered by Delegate Ron Walters, R-Kanawha, called for a pilot project in three schools in each of the Regional Educational Service Areas — elementary, middle and high school — to allow electronic textbooks.

Walters couched his argument partly in a plea for student health, noting that several books stuffed inside a student’s textbook would impose a burden of 21 to 35 pounds.

This amendment lost on a 23-73 tally.

Despite the uproar generated by the bill by Republicans, Guthrie reminded her fellow delegates that not all bills are perfect, and often aren’t the final word.

“Each year we come back, we can make it better,” she said.

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