By Mannix Porterfield
Weeks of intense hearings, bargaining talks and even teacher protests ended Monday in the Senate’s unanimous approval of “a wonderful step” in reforming West Virginia’s education system.
After the 34-0 approval, Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, stood by his prediction the House of Delegates would follow suit by the end of the week.
Leaders of the two teacher unions, while not 100 percent sold on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s package, hailed it as a vast improvement from the original version of SB359 that triggered much unrest early on in this session.
Major selling points for both the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers were the removal of the disputed Teach For America initiative, retention of seniority in the hiring practices and a guaranteed 180 days of instructional time.
“While no one is going to be completely happy, from where we started in this original bill when the governor first introduced it to where we are now, it’s leaps and bounds better,” WVEA President Dale Lee said.
Lee viewed as “huge” the insertion that the faculty-senate and teachers alike have a voice in the hiring policies.
“This is a bill that the governor can be very pleased about,” AFT President Judy Hale said, outside the Senate chamber.
Besides the seniority issue, Hale said her group also was pleased with an insistence that students read at grade level by the end of the third grade and the time assured teachers for collaboration.
“We were able to show that research says this is good for academic achievement,” she said.
“We were able to get some of that back in. I truly believe that there’s a great deal in this bill that is going to mean a lot to academic achievement for children.”
Both groups fought the original version of SB359 tooth and nail, even staging a demonstration one morning outside the Capitol.
Tomblin’s chief of staff, Rob Alsop, said the only issue stricken and designated for a study was the controversial Teach For America, which both the WVEA and AFT feared would open the door for unqualified teachers in West Virginia classrooms in an effort to plug shortages in specific subjects.
“We think Teach For America is a really good program,” Alsop said.
“We think it has the potential to bring teachers into the state. We also know there were a lot of concerns about it, the use of public education dollars for finder fees and a number of issues we need to continue to look at.”
Alsop agreed with Kessler that the House would go along with the final version exiting the Senate.
“We’ve improved the bill every day,” he said.
“We have continued to work on it from the day it was introduced until 10:30 this morning. I think it’s fair to say that we all did a good job of listening to each other and improving the bill.”
Senate Education Chairman Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, briefly sketched the bill, highlighting the changes, including one that calls for 11 elements in the hiring criteria.
Another big alteration came in stretching the time to satisfy the 180-day calendar from the existing 43 weeks to 48 weeks, Plymale said.
Negotiators also changed the bill so that two out of school environment days can be used before the 130th instructional day in the calendar and the four remaining ones afterward, the education chairman explained.
“These days are not instructional days and they can be used to make up snow days,” he said.
Plymale also hailed the nationally board certified teacher aspect, saying research has shown this lifts student achievement 8 to 15 percent.
Kessler praised his education chairman for “working tirelessly” on the bill the past two months and said it was critical for the Senate to get one out with unanimous support. A showdown on it was delayed last Friday, allowing for some more fine-tuning and tweaking.
“This bill is a wonderful start in making the necessary changes and reforms to improve the quality of our education delivery system,” the Senate president said.
“We’ve all got the same thing at heart and that’s quality education for our kids. Teachers need to be given flexibility to do what they do best in the classroom and that’s teach. This is a huge step in helping to ensure our kids get adequate time in the classroom. I’ve said for years, kids need to have their fannies in the desks at least 180 days a year, and I think this bill will ensure that.”
Kessler said teachers are professional and have a better handle on education than policymakers under the Capitol dome.
“Teachers know what works in the classroom much better than 134 legislators,” he added.
Freshman Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, saw the bill with some positives, such as improving the hiring practices and the school calendar, but feels it fell short of generating real reforms.
“We have left so much undone,” Carmichael said.
“It’s just unfortunate that we missed an opportunity to really aggressively move West Virginia from near last place to among the best in the nation.”
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