CHARLESTON — Education union leaders, teachers and school service personnel packed the Capitol in Charleston Monday to speak during public hearings on the much-debated omnibus education bill currently making its way through the House of Delegates.

Speaker were given 70 seconds each to give their stance on the bill, with the majority speaking against its passage.

The bill, largely filled with controversial provisions like charter schools and educational savings accounts (ESAs), underwent a few changes last week by the House Education Committee, including eliminating ESAs and limiting the number of charter schools to open to two.

Fayette County Superintendent Terry George told the crowd he applauded the actions of the House Education Committee for taking the bill apart and looking at each component based on its own merits. 

"Most importantly though, I urge each of you to take a stand for the students of the West Virginia public school system. The education reform bill was drafted without the input of West Virginia educators. It was written by out-of-state so-called education experts," George said. 

George said he believes West Virginia has a history of permitting outside interest to take advantage of its rich natural resources.

"Now we have similar outside interests wanting to take advantage of our most precious resource — our students," he added.

"They claim our schools are failing; they claim they can fix the problem for us. Haven't we had enough of outsiders fixing our problems?" he said. "I urge each of you to include the actual experts, our classroom teachers, to provide the necessary resources to improve our existing school system.

"West Virginians know our state better than anyone. Let's work together to make it a better system. Take a stand for our students."

Raleigh County Superintendent David Price echoed George's remarks by citing specific demographics of Raleigh County – 60 percent of its graduating class for the 2017-18 school year went on to higher education, receiving $5.5 million in scholarships, and 98 percent of the county's career tech center students went on to college, career or military. He also said the county serves 2,000 special needs students, 12,000 students in total, with 14 school nurses. 

"I say all of that to say this — there's no one that knows the challenges, strengths and weaknesses better than the trained professional educators in the state of West Virginia," Price said. "To have the true discussions and debates about quality education and school improvement that is student-focused in West Virginia, these people (teachers, principals and superintendents) need to be included in the discussions."

The nearly 130-page bill is filled with points teachers and education officials say are positive, like the additional pay raise Gov. Jim Justice promised in October, the banking of unused personal days and a teacher and faculty tax credit of $250.

Price added he applauds the House Education Committee for the work they put toward the bill, but believes more work is needed. He and many others during the public hearing said each item of the bill needs to stand on its own merits and should be voted on separately.

Tega Toney, an Oak Hill High School teacher, president of American Federation of Teacher (AFT)-Fayette County and vice president of AFT-West Virginia, also spoke in opposition of the bill. She cited research stating charter school goals were more aspirational than realistic and current research on ESAs is too limited. 

"There is limited research on ESAs, so we look at vouchers," she said. "But the recent studies on vouchers suggest students using vouchers do worse than they would have done if they remained in their public schools, and research also points to problems of accountability, access and segregation."

Shannon Martin, a parent of a student in Kanawha County, said West Virginia isn't doing a good job of fulfilling students by giving them credit where it's due. She said her son thrived in public school and now serves in the military. 

"These students are never given the attention they deserve, and we need to work on that," Martin said. 

Martin said ESAs will only help children with involved parents, not help the majority of the children suffering from poverty and the opioid epidemic. 

"ESAs will do nothing. We need to work with those parents who are uninvolved and provide them with incentives," she said. 

Wendy Peters, a Raleigh County teacher and co-president of the Raleigh County Education Association, told the crowd about her son, who she said has special needs. She said when it comes to children with special needs, early intervention is key, which is something that was provided to her son through public education. 

"There's no way my husband and I would be able to afford to pay for the services public school offers to him," Peters said.

Peters said the establishment of ESAs would barely put a dent in the costs for services for her son. 

"Public schools serve all children. They do not discriminate," she said. "And I really hope you will start listening to the experts in public education." 

• • • 

While many spoke in opposition of the bill, a few spoke in favor of it.

Dan Brokke, the principal of Grace Christian School in Cabell County, urged lawmakers to vote in favor of the bill, specifically for ESAs. 

"It's not government money; it's tax dollars. These parents are already paying for public education and now they're choosing to pay a second time," Brokke said. 

Rachelle Engen, who serves the Institute of Justice, spoke in favor of ESAs, which allow parents to withdraw their children from the public school district and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts. 

Engen said it's unfair to make a ZIP code the sole deciding factor of the type of education a child can receive. She said she believes it is especially unfair to West Virginia's most disadvantaged students. 

"That is why West Virginia should enact an education savings account or ESA program," she explained. "ESAs allow unprecedented opportunities for parents to customize their children's educations. They give students the ability to receive an education tailored specifically to their needs.

"West Virginia should join the 29 other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico that have private school choice programs. and give their students robust opportunities to pursue an education that best fits their individual needs." 

Jonathan Rogers, a Kanawha County resident, said he was in full support of charter schools. He said it's time to embrace change with the possibility of better things to come. 

"I stand in support of this bill. It supports the baseline funding for teachers to do their job and gives them the opportunity to embrace something new, like charter schools," Rogers said. "I think there is a lot of room for adjustment and compromise with this, allowing the best for the state as a whole. We've got to prepare our kids for the 21st century workforce, and this will do that." 

Barry Holstein, a West Virginia resident, urged lawmakers to pass the bill in the form in which it was first introduced by the Senate. He said he supports the freedom to choose, and asked that charter schools and ESAs remain in the bill. 

"Our motto here in West Virginia is 'Mountaineers are Always Free,' so don't we want to give parents the option for an education that works for their child?" Holstein asked. "If we can't do these simple, easy things, how are we going to do the hard stuff? 

"Like I said, our motto here is 'Mountaineers are Always Free.' I suppose we will find out soon if that's true." 

Email: jnelson@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @jnelsonRH 

Email: jnelson@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @jnelsonRH

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