Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin may see his education reform bill on his desk as early as this week.
That's because West Virginia lawmakers are moving fast on the bill, which passed the Senate unanimously March 18. The bill, Senate Bill 359, has been introduced in the House of Delegates and referred to the House Education Committee.
Delegate Josh Stowers, D-Lincoln, said members of that committee and teachers unions were in on discussions happening on the Senate side to reach a compromise on the bill, particularly on the issues of teacher hiring practices, the school calendar and Teach for America.
The nearly 200-page bill suffered through several Senate Education Committee meetings while hours of debate picked apart the school calendar, teacher hiring, alternative teacher certification and teacher planning periods.
It passed that committee with a lengthy amendment that still garnered four votes against it. Even after that, the bill was sent through the wringer in the Senate Finance Committee where it passed March 14, but again with several votes against it.
All the while, members of the American Federation of Teachers – West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association protested the bill.
The bill came to the full Senate for a vote March 14, but lawmakers indicated they still had work to do to reach a better compromise.
During the 11 a.m. March 18 floor session, lawmakers and the media received an updated version of changes to the bill before the Senate adjourned until 1:30 p.m. the same day.
The House then gaveled in at 3 p.m. to take up Senate reports, including SB 359. After the four-minute session, Stowers said both chambers want to pass a strong, meaningful bill and he anticipates the House Education Committee will make no changes to the legislation. He anticipated some members of the committee would have questions about the bill.
Tomblin's Chief of Staff Rob Alsop said the administration worked "non-stop" with members of the Senate and the House of Delegates along with education groups to get a bill they all could support.
The House is traditionally the place where education bills go to die or get watered down, but Alsop said he expected that body to pass the bill quickly.
Hallie Mason, policy director for the governor's office, said the office believes SB 359 is "landmark legislation."
"The House of Delegates has been involved in discussions with stakeholders and we believe that when the bill is received, and studied they too will support the governor's proposal," she said after the Senate vote.
Some of the contentious sticking points include the Teach for America Program. The newest version of the bill would continue to keep the program out of the state, but asks for a study of alternative teacher certifications.
Alsop said they reached an agreement on hiring that would include flexibility and input from teachers.
The school calendar would expand to 48 weeks instead of the current 43. Alsop said that calendar would get each student 180 days of classroom instruction, which is what Tomblin wanted, but it would still permit local flexibility. One change would be a mandated four-week break for school maintenance.
The newest version of the bill also would outline teacher planning periods be a minimum of 40 minutes, but still would request a study of them for future tweaks.
WVEA President Dale Lee said after the first Senate floor session March 18 he was not expecting any surprises or further changes.
Lee said Outside School Environment, or OSE days, would still be paid days for staff, but those days also could be used for making up snow days.
"This bill makes much more sense than the original version," Lee said. "It was a lot of hard work from our organizations, both us and the AFT, the governor's office, Senate leadership and House leadership."
Lee explained that under the newest version of the bill, teacher hiring would go from seven measures to 11, and recommendations from school principals and faculty senates would be double weighted.
"This gives teachers and faculty senates more of a voice in the hiring," Lee said. "There's a lot of different views and different opinions, and our teachers across the state had their voice heard, and they were able to change some opinions on these critical issues."
Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, said the newest version of the bill gets to the "real issue of making sure we have the most qualified teachers in the classroom."
"No longer will seniority be the main factor, but the person's qualifications and experience will be more important than how long somebody has been in the school system," Wells said. "It has been a work in progress from day one, because everybody – including the education groups – realized we need to have significant reform to improve education in our state."
Wells said the bill would make significant changes to the hiring process, and is a guarantee that 180 days of instruction will take place.
"Gov. Tomblin is very pleased with how discussions progressed, how the groups came together," Mason said. "This is too important for the children of West Virginia to give up."
Tomblin issued the following statement Monday afternoon.
"I commend the members of the West Virginia Senate for supporting Senate Bill 359. I believe our children deserve the best education possible and I am confident this landmark legislation will truly make a difference in classrooms across the state. When I proposed my comprehensive plan for education reform, I laid out five key goals to raise student achievement and improve our education system. I'm pleased all of my goals remain intact and I look forward to working with members of the House and stakeholders in the coming days. I believe, together, we can improve student achievement in West Virginia."
The bill is scheduled for a vote by the full Senate during its 1:30 p.m. March 18 session.