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Despite tornado warnings and a brief recess in which lawmakers and the public were evacuated downstairs at the Capitol, the West Virginia Senate voted Monday to pass a controversial omnibus bill that could most notably lead to the state’s first charter schools. Senators fast-tracked the bill by suspending rules that would normally require they read the bill three times on three separate days.
Under House Bill 206, teacher and school service personnel will receive pay raises. Three charter schools could be established — only by county boards of education — to begin operating in the 2021-2022 academic year with the possibility of three additional charters allowed every three years beginning in 2023.
The Senate passed House Bill 206 18-16. Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, and Sen. Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, joined Democrats to oppose the measure.
The upper chamber voted 32-1 to suspend the Senate’s three-day rule. Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, was the lone no vote and Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, was absent for the procedural vote that fast-tracked the bill to a Monday vote.
A small number of people sat in the galleries Monday night, and only a few were waiting outside the chamber shortly before senators gaveled in around 5 p.m. The size of the crowd was significantly smaller than other groups that gathered at the Capitol to oppose the bill over the past few months.
Senate Democrats Fail to Get Support for Amendments
Before Senators returned to Charleston for Monday’s session, Carmichael said he wanted to pass the bill as it came over from the House.
However, minority Democrats still tried, but failed, to wipe out charter schools from the bill and implement other changes.
Sen. Hamilton again tried to force counties to hold a referendum to allow for the authorization of a charter school. That proposed amendment also failed.
West Virginia’s Education ‘Betterment’: Months in the Making
The debate over education reform in West Virginia has festered for months.
Teachers went on strike for two days in February as they rallied against Senate Bill 451, the original omnibus measure that ultimately failed in the House during the Legislature’s regular 60-day session.
Republican Gov. Jim Justice called the special session on “education betterment” in March after lawmakers were unable to agree upon education reform, despite earmarking the pay raises in the FY 2021 state budget.
While voting on the similar omnibus Senate Bill 1039 for education in early June, Democrats refused to suspend the rules before passing it 18-16. The House of Delegates balked on Senate Bill 1039 and Senate Bill 1040, another measure that would have established a voucher program for public dollars to be spent on some aspects of private education.
House Creates Its Own Omnibus
The House of Delegates cleared House Bill 206 last week on a 57-47 vote after making their way through dozens of amendments. Lawmakers in the lower chamber spent nine hours debating the controversial measure.
Some significant changes did occur in the lower chamber as delegates made their way through the amendment process. With House Bill 206 originally calling for a cap of ten charter schools, delegates chose instead to temporarily set that limit at three. Lawmakers also added a back-to-school tax credit to be applied to the purchase of clothes and school supplies.
The House also avoided addressing the rights of school employees to strike and protest, whereas the Senate had amended its bill to include anti-strike provisions that would allow schools to withhold pay or fire employees who strike.
With no changes made in the Senate, House Bill 206 will soon head to the governor’s desk for a signature. Gov. Justice, who had in the past said he opposed charter schools, has said he will sign the bill.