Governor, teachers unions primed for battle over school reform
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Battle lines have been drawn over education reform in the state Legislature.
On one side, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and his staff said their proposed changes would move West Virginia education in a positive direction.
Unions say the bill bashes teachers and fails to provide any evidence that the proposed changes will work or are necessary.
The Senate Education Committee saw the first act of the fight Thursday.
Committee members had been briefed about the contents of Senate Bill 359 on Tuesday.
Hallie Mason, Tomblin's policy director, on Thursday gave them a quick history of the bill before moving to address misconceptions.
She said the bill would not take away paid holiday leave; teachers wouldn't have to work on Saturdays; faculty senates could meet more than once a year; and seniority would remain a factor in hiring.
Her points came in response to a letter sent earlier this week by the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers to its roughly 16,000 members.
The AFT letter lists 13 bullet points about provisions of the bill the union believes would hurt teachers.
Tomblin's office issued its own letter Thursday, directly quoting the AFT letter and discussing each point.
After each AFT assertion - an example is "Do you think you should be paid for Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day? Apparently Governor Tomblin doesn't think so" - the letter from the governor's office states "FACT" and responds.
Mason said the bill doesn't hurt teachers; it empowers them.
Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, grilled Mason on the language of the governor's bill, particularly provisions concerning seniority.
State law currently lists seven criteria to used in hiring a teacher and says each one should be given equal weight. However, Mason and education administrators say seniority is the only one of those seven that makes any difference.
The bill would remove the phrase about equal weight; eliminate the specific criteria for hiring teachers; and include seniority in a broader list of factors that could be considered, Mason said.
"Technically, if the law says they should all be equally weighted, and it's not being practiced now . . . by taking that provision out that they're not equally weighted, I'm having a hard time seeing how you're going to change that aspect," Unger said.
Mason said the new system would allow counties to hire teachers who are the right fit for a school. When pressed by Unger, she said the governor's office believes high-quality teachers are being hired now but they may not always be the right choice for a particular school.
The new system would give teachers and principals greater influence in the hiring process, Mason said.
Stepping in to help Mason, State Superintendent Jim Phares said superintendents still would bring employment recommendations to county school boards for final approval.
Unger said deletion of the "equal weight" language could open the door to any factor playing the most significant role in hiring. Unger said he has heard stories about counties being forced to hire based on seniority but hasn't seen any evidence the current system doesn't work.
That was music to the ears of Christine Campbell, president-elect for AFT West Virginia.
"I've been saying that all along: we need to see the evidence that the hiring criteria is not working, that it has a negative impact on student achievement," Campbell said.
There's no evidence that hiring the most qualified teacher is a bad move, she argued. The AFT and Unger believe the change could lead to nepotism.
That was fear mongering, said Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha.
"What I feel is going to happen is that people will come forward with these crazy notions that all of a sudden we're going to implode if we don't hire the teacher with the most seniority. That's not going to happen," said Wells, education committee vice chairman.
"We can't legislate through fear, and that's what some of these questions are geared toward: let's put fear in teachers' minds that if we pass this legislation, then everyone is going to get fired," he said. "And that's just a ridiculous argument."
Finding a high-quality teacher is the bottom line for any hire, but finding someone who fits into a school's environment also is important, Wells said.
Wells doesn't buy the argument that more proof is needed when it comes to seniority. He says he's seen enough evidence.
"When you're 48th in the nation in student achievement, we need to take action. We can't sit there and go back and say, 'Well, we need all the data,' " he said.
State Board of Education President Wade Linger also addressed the committee.
Phares and Linger both said they support the bill and think it would give local school systems and the department more flexibility to make changes.
Unger said he wouldn't vote for the bill without some change to the provision regarding seniority.
Senate Education Chairman Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, backed up some of the points made by Mason and Phares.
Whenever a hiring decision is taken before a grievance judge, the judge almost always sides with the person who has more seniority, Plymale said.
Judy Hale, outgoing AFT president, was slated to take the podium, but the committee ran out of time. Plymale said she would be first on the agenda when the committee meets again at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
Plymale has scheduled a second meeting on Tuesday for 5 p.m. There also will be meetings at 2 and 5 p.m. Thursday.
The governor's bill will be the focus of those meetings, and discussion will go as long as it takes, Plymale said.
He plans to put the bill to a vote Thursday.