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Senate approves compromise school reform bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State senators passed Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education reform bill Monday, after making a flurry of last-minute changes to win support from West Virginia's teachers unions.

"There were some very difficult negotiations, but I believe this addresses the most important issue that our kids are getting a quality education," said Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall. "Overall it's a good, strong bill."

The compromise bill overhauls teacher-hiring practices, but doesn't gut the role seniority plays in teacher selection.

The legislation also won't allow the nonprofit Teach for America program to operate in West Virginia. Instead, lawmakers plan to study such alternative programs. The teachers unions opposed Teach for America, which places recent college graduates in struggling schools.

Tomblin's revised bill also expands the length of the yearly school calendar -- as requested by county school boards -- but requires schools to shut down at least four weeks each year.

"This is a bill that's good for children and good for school employees," said Judy Hale, president of the West Virginia Federation of Teachers. "It's a much better bill than it was initially."

Senate members voted 34-0 to pass Tomblin's revised school reform measures.

The House of Delegates accepted the bill Monday and referred it to the House Education Committee. A vote in the full House is expected by the end of the week.

The revised version of Tomblin's bill followed a series of meetings with state lawmakers, the governor's top aides and union leaders last weekend.

"We've still got work to do [in the House], but we think we've got a good bill that's going to be meaningful for raising student achievement in West Virginia," said Rob Alsop, Tomblin's chief of staff.

Tomblin's initial proposals to revamp teacher-hiring practices sparked widespread outrage among teachers, but the revised bill scales back most of the controversial changes.

Under the legislation, school principals and faculty senates will have a say over teacher hires -- and their recommendations will receive double weight among 11 factors used to fill teaching jobs.

Additional factors include seniority and whether teachers have a certificate from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

The bill also authorizes school boards to pay teachers who serve on panels that recommend teachers for jobs.

"It's going to give more flexibility to the local school board, and teachers also will have input," Hale said.

Teachers also won concessions on planning periods. Tomblin's original bill would have cut planning periods to 30 minutes. Instead, teachers will get a minimum of 40 minutes of planning time each day.

The initial bill proposed changing state law so county school boards could offer a "balanced" or year-round calendar. State law now limits the school calendar to 43 weeks.

Tomblin's revised bill increases the yearly school calendar to 48 weeks.

The bill eliminates days that school boards could count as instructional days, even though students weren't in school. The changes give county school systems more flexibility to make up snow days.

"You have to get 180 full days of instruction in," said Senate Education Committee Chairman Robert Plymale, D-Wayne. "This is a huge step to ensure our kids are getting adequate time in the classroom."

Sen. Mitch Carmichael, who voted for Tomblin's bill Monday, said the governor's proposals "take steps in the right direction."

But Carmichael said the legislation doesn't give enough authority to county school boards -- a recommendation detailed in an education efficiency audit released last year.

"We have missed a golden opportunity," Carmichael said. "We need fundamental, aggressive reform. Instead, we have taken the soft option."

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said teachers called and sent thousands of emails to state lawmakers in recent days, prompting the "compromise" bill.

"This would not have happened if teachers had not been outraged and had their voices heard," Lee said.

Tomblin's revised bill kept several proposals:

• State law would no longer require state schools superintendents to hold a master's in education administration. The bill's supporters say the change would increase the pool of applicants for the superintendent's post.

• Elementary school teachers would receive specialized training designed to increase the number of third-graders who end that year reading at grade level.

• Full-day pre-kindergarten programs would be available to 4-year-olds statewide.

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


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