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Senator says House Education Committee could be reform hurdle

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The study commissioned by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on expansion of Medicaid is costing more than $860,000 and will cover a wide array of issues raised by the federal health care overhaul.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A Kanawha County member of the state Senate who has clashed with teachers unions in the past is not optimistic about the fate of education reform in the revamped House Education Committee.   

Any reform legislation will find its way to that panel.  

Republicans in the House are confidant the 17 new delegates and 11 seats the party picked up in November could make the committee more open to change.

Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, is less so.  

"The committee makeup doesn't matter. The chairman matters. Whoever the chairman is, of any particular committee, dictates what the agenda is going to be," said Wells, vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

"So you still have a House Education Committee that still leans toward educators.  And I think that's good and bad," he said.  

House Education Chairman Mary Poling, D-Barbour, is a longtime educator. An assistant in her office said Tuesday that Poling was in meetings the rest of the afternoon and unavailable for comment.

Wells clashed with teachers unions when the senator attempted to loosen the state's teacher hiring and firing laws, particularly within the charter school legislation he introduced in the 2009 legislative session. The unions backed his opponent in the May 2010 primary election, but he won anyway and was re-elected in the fall general election.  

Having educators on the committee is a plus because they have insight and experience that those outside the system lack, Wells said. However, he thinks they are typically less open to changes that could affect someone's position.

Wells expressed his fears about the chances for reform to State Superintendent Jim Phares and members of the House and Senate education committees during a joint meeting Tuesday.

After the meeting, he said he thinks there are obstacles to what he considers true reform: hiring teachers based on performance rather than seniority, for example.

"We need to get past the aspect that years of service equal the better teacher, and that's not the case. That's a huge hurdle to overcome," Wells said.

That shift was recommended in the education efficiency audit released in January 2012. It's generally opposed by teachers unions.

Judy Hale, head of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, agreed with Wells that there are obstacles to reform. She thinks there will be reform, but it might not be what Wells wants.

Finding common ground with the unions could be key to ensuring reform passes in the House Education Committee, said Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan.

"Whether or not we can get the union leadership on board will be pertinent, and just what that reform looks like, I think, will be important," he said.

Cowles likes the new composition of the committee. It includes 12 Democrats and 11 Republicans, with a change in the majority leadership. Delegate Josh Stowers, D-Lincoln and principal of Horace Mann Middle School in Charleston, is the new vice chair.

Stowers is an asset for reform, Cowles said.

"I know Josh Stowers and I think he has great intentions with doing great thing. I can tell you, I think we're in better shape," Cowles said.

Cowles said some aspects of education reform might originate in the Senate.

Education reform is one of two key pieces of the GOP legislative agenda, House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, announced Tuesday. He agreed the House Education Committee was a hurdle in the past, but he thinks the new members and momentum for reform could mean a different outcome this session.

Like Wells, he acknowledged the committee chair gets to decide what bills are taken up by a committee. However, any measure that does make it on the committee agenda then goes before the full House. Armstead said it can be revised at that stage.  

"The House Education Committee will hopefully gauge the mood of the House, and what the House as a whole wants to do, and reflect that," Armstead said.

"If it does not, then I think there will be opportunities when the bill comes to the floor to make amendments and then the house as a whole will have the ability to speak on where they believe this legislation needs to go."

Wells, Hale, Cowles and Armstead all believe Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will focus on education reform this session. His State of the State address is scheduled for 7 p.m. today.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymailwv.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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