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Education bill clears Senate committee; teacher unions fume

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education reform bill cleared its first hurdle Tuesday over strong objections from teachers.

The Senate Education Committee passed the governor's legislation on a non-unanimous voice vote.

"This is not an education reform bill. This is a teacher-bashing bill," said Judy Hale, president of the West Virginia Federation of Teachers.

The bill overhauls teacher hiring practices, de-emphasizing seniority. The legislation also allows the Teach for America program to operate in West Virginia, but under a different name.

Teachers union leaders said they had won several concessions under Tomblin's bill last week. Those changes were scrapped Monday, they said.

"I'm discouraged we were making progress only to see that progress take several steps back," said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.

Lee predicted the hiring proposals in Tomblin's bill would lead to a significant spike in grievances, or formal complaints, filed by teachers.

"There's no way you can show me these [proposed] hiring practices will do anything but create havoc," he said. "This absolutely will not lead to the most qualified people getting the job."

The revised version of Tomblin's bill that passed Tuesday includes some concessions to teachers.

The committee's substitute bill, for instance, increases the number of faculty senate days from one to four. The updated version also doesn't restrict teacher-planning periods to 30 minutes a day. Instead, the bill directs the state school board to study planning periods and report back to the Legislature.

"I think it's a good bill," said Senate Education Committee Chairman Robert Plymale, D-Wayne. "We addressed a lot of their concerns."

But it did not address the major sticking points, teachers union leaders said after the vote.

Teachers wanted county school boards to give seniority equal weight among eight criteria used to fill teaching jobs. Instead, Tomblin's bill allows local school boards to set the weight of each factor. So school officials could deem seniority, or experience, the least important factor.

Hale said the change would lead principals and county superintendents to hire their friends and family members, not the most qualified teacher.

"There is no objectivity to the hiring practices," Hale said. "It truly is the 'friends and family plan.' The criteria, as the bill reads, is worthless."

The governor's office, however, added language to the bill that stipulates that principals can't recommend relatives for teacher jobs.

Hale said teachers never asked for that revision.

"That was just jerking us around," said Hale, who got into a verbal altercation with Tomblin's policy director, Hallie Mason, in the hallway after the vote.

Hale accused Mason of congratulating a West Virginia Chamber of Commerce staff member after the Senate committee adjourned. The Chamber supports Tomblin's bill. Mason denied making any statements to the Chamber representative, and several witnesses said they did not hear Mason make the alleged comment.

Hale and Lee also expected that Tomblin's revised bill would gut language about Teach for America, a national program that takes recent college graduates and places them in struggling schools. Instead, Tomblin's bill no longer mentions Teach for America, but permits "national teacher corps" programs to operate in West Virginia.

The state Board of Education would have to approve such programs. State school board members have repeatedly pushed for allowing Teach for America to send teachers to West Virginia. Teach for America teachers typically receive about five weeks of training before being assigned to classrooms, and many don't have teaching degrees.

"It's an insult to our teachers to take someone with five weeks of training and say they can do the job," Lee said.

The teachers unions also don't like a provision in Tomblin's bill that expands the school-year calendar. Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, said the change would help ensure West Virginia students receive 180 days of instruction and that teachers work those days.

"There's not a person around this committee room who is in business who would be willing to pay somebody a full amount for not getting the full value," Wells said.

Other changes in the revised bill:

  • The state Department of Education must reduce its "personal services" spending by 5 percent in 2014 and 2015. That revision was designed to address "top heaviness" at the department as outlined in a statewide education efficiency audit last year. However, the department could wind up cutting secretaries and other rank-and-file workers, instead of high-paid administrators.  
  • Student trips to high school sports tournaments would not be counted as instructional days.
  • The state school superintendent's salary would no longer be capped at $175,000. The legislation also removes a requirement that the superintendent hold a master's degree in education administration.
  • Senate committee members voted 10-4 to approve Tomblin's education reform bill Tuesday, according to a tally released by education committee staff after the meeting.

    Teachers expect their complaints with Tomblin's legislation to get a better reception in the House. House Education Committee Chairman Mary Poling, D-Barbour, is a former schoolteacher.

    The Senate Finance Committee next takes up the bill on Thursday.

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

     


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