By Mannix Porterfield
Allusions to a Shakespearean classic and America’s pastime preceded lopsided approval Friday of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s compromise measure to reform public education in West Virginia.
Flanked by legislative leaders, Tomblin called SB359, under fire and intense scrutiny since the session opened, “landmark legislation” and promised it would raise student achievement and open doors of opportunities for West Virginia children.
“I believe our kids will be better prepared for future opportunities of this bill,” the governor said.
Delegates wrangled over five Republican amendments a day earlier, all of which failed, and when the dust at last settled, the proposal cleared on a 95-2 tally.
Opposing it were Delegates Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, and Larry Kump, R-Berkeley.
Kump took his cue from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” saying the 189-page document was “full of sound and fury, and I’m not sure yet just what it signifies.”
No pay raises are included for teachers, but the heads of both the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers signed on once lawmakers softened the original bill so that Teach For America was abandoned and seniority was given equal footing in the hiring criteria.
“I’m concerned about our underpaid teachers,” Kump said.
“Now some folks do not give a flying frog’s fanny about this issue, but I do.”
One of the longer eruptions came in Thursday’s session when Minority Whip Darryl Cowles, R-Morgan, sought to provide charter schools — a controversial concept that split the Legislature two years earlier.
In the final consideration, however, Cowles rose in support of the bill, saying it does make some meaningful strides.
“Maybe it’s not a grand slam, or a home run, but what I would call a standup double,” he said.
“Let’s not stop here. Let’s make this step today.”
Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, said the bill was assembled after taking input from teachers, lawmakers, the state Board of Education and the business community to produce “an outstanding piece of legislation.”
“When you say something is a building block, that doesn’t mean you’re settling for something that is second rate,” he said.
“I think you recognize the fact it’s a positive, but even a positive can be built on in the future. I think it sends a great message that we came together in a bipartisan way to address a very, very serious issue. Most importantly, it’s about our kids, and the next generation and the following generations. It’s fair. It’s bold. It’s innovative.”
Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, voted for it but voiced displeasure it didn’t heed the recent education audit that inspired the bill and do more to lessen the top-heaviness at the state level.
The bill contains a built-in 5 percent reduction this year and next, but Armstead said more power needs to be concentrated at the local level.
“We need to work on more control back to the county school systems, the teachers, and principals,” he said.
“We still have a lot of work to do in education.”
Tomblin called a news conference to tout the five major points of the bill, including a provision assuring that all children can read at grade level by the end of the third grade.
The governor listed a second key point as making sure high school grads are ready to hold down a job or “make a seamless transition” into college or vocational school.
“All students will be taught by great teachers,” he said pointing to a third plank.
“Students will learn in a variety of ways. And public education will be delivered locally, not by Charleston.”
House Education Chair Mary Poling, D-Barbour, sketched the bill before the vote, noting that a major element — the school calendar — guarantees 180 instructional days, along with 20 nonteaching days, spread over a 48-week period, not the existing 43-week frame.
Of the 20 non-instructional days, seven are paid holidays and six are “outside the school environment days,” she noted, and the remaining days are to be used for conferences or to make up for lost days.
Poling also addressed a key sticking point for the teacher unions, pointing out the hiring criteria expand to 11, with seniority put on an equal basis, while two new ones are added — recommendations by the principal and faculty senate. Those latter two are double weighted in making up the teaching rosters.
“It’s a very comprehensive bill,” Poling said.
Delegate Tiffany Lawrence, D-Jefferson, one of several lawmakers who spoke in support, said it was actually in the making for the past five years.
“Every single piece of this bill focuses on student achievement,” she said.
Armstead disagreed, however, noting that West Virginia’s education is ranked 49th, and more should have been done to get its national ranking up.
“I don’t think it’s bold,” the minority leader said. “I don’t think it’s comprehensive.”
Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, had boldly predicted the education package would be in Tomblin’s hands quickly. And his forecast held up.
“When I made the prediction early on that we were going to get this bill out of the Senate within 30 days, people rolled their eyes and said it couldn’t be done,” he said.
Some wondered if he weren’t putting it on the fast track, he recalled.
“I said, ‘No, we’re putting this on the right track,’” he said.
House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, applauded teachers and school service personnel for providing input and working with lawmakers throughout the exhaustive process.
“Their only concern was what was best for our children,” he added.
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