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House rejects amendments by GOP for education bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The House of Delegates rejected Republican attempts Thursday to add charter schools, an alternative teacher evaluation process and other changes to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education proposal, advancing it toward a vote Friday on final approval.

Other failed GOP amendments amid a two-hour debate sought to deepen cuts at the state Department of Education, create an electronic textbook pilot program, and restore a $175,000 cap for the state school superintendent's annual salary. Before the Senate unanimously passed the bill Monday, its Education Committee had removed the cap.

Among its numerous provisions, the measure rewrites teacher hiring and transfers policies and aims to help counties provide the mandated 180 days of student instruction each year. It would pay nationally certified teachers the $1,150 needed to renew that vaunted status, and offer loan forgiveness worth up to $15,000 to those who agree to teach subjects or in parts of the state facing critical shortages.

The legislation also seeks to advance Tomblin's goals of ensuring that every third-grader ends that year reading at grade level, and that high school students enter their senior year ready for college or career training. Following its Senate passage, the House Education Committee endorsed the 190-page bill Tuesday without dissent or amendment.

Thursday's votes tested the Republicans' clout after last year's election increased their ranks in the House to 46 of 100 seats, their largest share in 70 years. But while the proposal for further cuts failed 44-52 along party lines, none of the four other GOP amendments attracted more than 26 votes in support.

Tomblin, a Democrat, opposed the changes sought by Republicans, said spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin.

"The governor feels that we have a solid bill," Goodwin said. "He doesn't believe any amendments are needed."

Senate Education Committee members removed the superintendent's salary cap after the state Board of Education lobbied for loosening limits on that job so it can search nationally for candidates. Tomblin's bill already removes the requirement that the superintendent's graduate degree has to be in education administration.

"We need a leader who can do something different in West Virginia," said House Education Chairwoman Mary Poling, D-Barbour.

Another GOP amendment proposed an optional, alternative way to evaluate teachers. Half a teacher's score would have been based on student achievement. The rest would have been divided between student surveys and what administrators and fellow teachers observe of the educator's performance. It offers a $1,000 bonus to teachers for each year they take part, and an extra $2,500 if their students meet or exceed achievement standards.

"I see this clearly as a participatory, volunteer program that would allow teachers, especially in our Eastern Panhandle, to make a little bit more money," said Delegate Eric Householder, R-Jefferson and an amendment co-sponsor.

The state recently developed a different evaluation system through a pilot program that Tomblin successfully had expanded statewide last year. Poling and other Democrats cited that ongoing effort, while questioning whether research supported the amendment's approach.

The Thursday amendment calling for cuts proposed reducing state department staff to no more than two employees for every 2,000 students by mid-2016. Tomblin's legislation was prompted by a wide-ranging audit that described West Virginia's public schools as too rigid with myriad rules and state-level bureaucracy. This study counted five department employees for every 2,000 students, finding just one other state -- Alaska -- with more.

"The resources that support this top-heavy bureaucracy could be placed back at the local level," said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha. "We could be spending more in the classroom. We could be rewarding our teachers. There are many things that we could do with these resources."

Opponents of that amendment cited language added by Senate Education Committee members requiring the state superintendent to cut department personnel spending by 5 percent in each of the next two budget years.

The 151-page education audit report did not discuss or recommend charter schools. These rely on public funds but operate independently, and can compete with regular schools for students and per-pupil aid. The GOP amendment sought to charter new schools or allow existing public schools to apply to county school boards for that status. It would have also permitted nonprofit organizations to run them.

Before it failed by the day's widest margin, 18-78, Democrats decried this proposal as a radical change. Several also cited how the bill reflected negotiations among the governor, lawmakers and such interested groups as those representing teachers. Republicans blasted the latter argument.

"[They're saying], 'You're not allowed to have a say in this,'" said Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha. "[They're saying], 'You're not allowed to amend this bill, because we all got together in a room someplace here in the Capitol and we all agreed.'"


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