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The ins and outs of the ‘Omnibus’ Education Bill

By Staff | Mar 1, 2019

When the West Virginia House of Delegates shot down the “Omnibus” Education Bill sent to it by the State Senate, the people of our state were failed. I suspect this failure was inevitable.

The Senate and the House approached the issue of public schools from entirely different points of view. The House wanted to deal only with the financial aspects of K-12 education. The Senate wanted to pass a wholesale restructuring of our local public schools.

This past October, Senate President Mitch Carmichael stood on a platform with Governor Jim Justice, while they promised public school teachers and school service workers (and all state employees) a five percent pay raise and two-year fix for the Public Employees’ Insurance Agency. Neither said anything about major education reform.

When the Legislature convened and the Senate trotted out its public school overhaul, Governor Justice immediately denounced, it, saying he’d promised only a pay raise and PEIA funding. He reiterated we should give everybody the promised pay raise and the two-years of PEIA funding, and not spring a plethora of untested reforms on our workers.

The proposed reforms included charter schools, Educational Savings Accounts and punitive restrictions on the political activity of teachers and school service workers. ESAs are a form of school vouchers.

I oppose all of these ideas, and sense (from the emails I’ve gotten during the session) that none of them have anywhere near majority support in our delegate district. I’ve received some emails in support of one or more of these ideas, but that number pales in comparison to the number of emails I’ve gotten in opposition. You might suspect that teachers and school service workers would be almost unanimous in their opposition to all of these proposals, and that’s true. But even among folks with no formal connection to the school system, the emails have run more than two to one against any one of them.

To those who think one or more of these ideas are worthy of our attention, I gently suggest each should be considered and debated on its own merits. The Senate’s insistence that they be lumped together with a pay raise caused many delegates (of both parties), I included, heartburn.

I think the Senate miscalculated. When Senate President Carmichael announced his support for the pay raise, many teachers and service workers concluded he now wanted to be their friend. The events of last year’s employee strike and resulting pay raise have left most of them with the impression that the Senate President was their enemy.

But when that overhaul of the system was launched, and the pay raises were tied to it, the teachers and service workers were angry. They once again came out in force, as they had done a year earlier. This year, they only had to stay two days.

It had become obvious there was no way to compromise the different positions of the slim majority of the Senate (18-16) that passed its version of the Omnibus bill and the huge majority of House members (71-29) that struck it down. I and many other House members, of both parties, tried to find some compromise that would work, but the Senate said it must be their bill or nothing.

There were many good things in the House version of the bill. One very important one was that it gave, for the first time, some provision for locality pay. I would love to have been able to vote for that, because Jefferson County needs it. But I would have had to swallow too many things that I think would have hurt our county to get it.