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W.Va. Senate fast-tracks education reform

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State lawmakers have put Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's sweeping education reform bill on the fast track, but teachers unions are mobilizing to derail it.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Robert Plymale said committee members plan to vote on the governor's schools legislation March 7 at the latest.

The Education Committee plans to discuss the bill and take comments at two upcoming meetings before taking a vote.

Plymale said he has a few questions about the bill, but favors most of the governor's proposals. The legislation includes numerous changes to state law that affect teacher hiring, early education, the school calendar and other issues.

"All in all, I think this bill moves us forward and puts student achievement on the top rung," Plymale, D-Wayne, said after Tuesday's education committee meeting.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said the bill does nothing to improve student achievement, and teachers want time to explain why.

"This bill is horrible," Lee said after an education committee lawyer read an abstract of the 179-page bill. "We will have many issues to present, many questions to ask, and they want to do this in one or two meetings?"

Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said Tomblin's bill lacks sufficient changes to give local school boards more control -- a key recommendation from a statewide education efficiency audit released last year.

Carmichael said state lawmakers should remove from state code more laws that strip decision-making from county school boards.

"We should be going through the thing and saying, 'Strike this and strike that,'" Carmichael said. "Instead, we're going through there and telling schools how long their teacher planning periods should be."

Tomblin's bill would allow schools to reduce some teacher-planning periods from an hour to 30 minutes or less each day.

Teachers union leaders have scoffed at that proposal -- and just about everything else in Tomblin's education reform package.

On Tuesday, union officials said they are planning something to get state lawmakers' attention, but they declined to talk about specifics.

"The governor missed a real opportunity to do real education reform, and has instead used this to bash teachers," Lee said.

Lee and West Virginia Federation of Teachers President Judy Hale said they were surprised that Tomblin's bill would allow the Teach for America program to operate in West Virginia.

Teach for America takes new college graduates who want to teach and places them at struggling schools. Tomblin made no mention of the program in his State of the State address earlier this month.

"The bill is full of so many contradictions," Hale said. "They say they want to improve reading instruction in elementary schools, but then they want to bring in unqualified teachers through Teach for America."

Tomblin's education bill also overhauls teacher hiring practices, weakening seniority in the hiring process. Hale said teacher hiring would become too subjective and allow county school boards to select unqualified applicants.

Hale said Tomblin's bill extends to the hiring of county school superintendents. The legislation states, "The county superintendent shall be hired under separate criteria established by the county board."

"The hiring criteria, I call it the friends and family plan," Hale said. "It's so they can hire their friends and family. They can hire anyone they want to."

The Senate Education Committee next meets on Thursday.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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