Committee meetings on education reform delayed
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Two meetings of the Senate Education Committee were abruptly canceled on Thursday, but teachers union officials indicated they were winning a hard-fought battle over revisions to the governor's massive education bill.
There were audible sighs in the packed committee room when Senate Education Chairman Bob Plymale announced the panel would not discuss the governor's education bill until next week.
It was the second time that afternoon the committee had postponed public discussion of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's 179-page measure.
After saying several times in the last two weeks that he would bring the bill up for a vote Thursday, Plymale said too much remained to be done.
"We are working on language. I do not feel comfortable bringing the language out to the committee without significant proofing," said Plymale, D-Wayne.
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, and Judy Hale, head of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, were very critical of some of the changes they thought would be in the revised bill given to the committee on Thursday.
However, after backroom finagling and bargaining, Hale thinks both sides are much closer to an agreement.
"I'm very optimistic that we are going to be able to come to an agreement. I'm very encouraged by the talks we've had today," Hale said.
Teacher unions have sharply criticized Senate Bill 359 since shortly after its introduction.
Union officials have worked behind the scene with the Tomblin administration and committee leadership this week to reach consensus on some provisions.
Plymale had planned to introduce a revised bill Thursday.
However, some serious sticking points remained, said Rob Alsop, Tomblin's chief of staff.
One involved a change in existing state law that would allow a program called Teach For America to place its volunteer teachers in West Virginia classrooms. Also at issue are revisions to state laws regulating teacher hiring procedures.
"We've discussed those but we haven't reached any agreement," Alsop said.
Tomblin told the Daily Mail Wednesday those topics were the two biggest hurdles remaining between opponents and advocates of the bill.
Teach For America is a national nonprofit organization that places recent college graduates into high-need schools. The WVEA's Lee has said the five-week training provided by the group does not qualify its participants to teach.
Teacher unions also adamantly oppose changes to hiring guidelines in state code. The governor's bill would give school administrators more flexibility and lessen the emphasis on seniority.
The vast majority of talks on bill revisions have taken place behind closed doors. Although copies of the governor's bill with changes were floating around the Capitol Thursday, few had seen the document.
"I haven't seen it, and as far as I know, no one else has seen it either," said Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, a member of the panel.
Chafin wasn't surprised that apart from Plymale and committee vice chair Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, the majority of senators have been left in the dark.
He offered a baseball metaphor about the process the bill must follow.
The Senate Education Committee represents the second or third inning of a game. The bill must make it through seven more innings - the full Senate, the House Education Committee, the full House and then the full Senate again - before it can become law.
"That's the way the game is played," Chafin said.
However, Chafin, a longtime senator who lost his leadership position a couple of years ago, said he was surprised the Senate was extensively revising the bill. He had figured his chamber would let the House of Delegates tackle the bigger changes.
"I thought they would put some sort of a shell out so the House can do some of the heavy lifting," he said.
Heavy lifting is planned for the weekend.
Alsop, Plymale and Hale all think the bill's chances are good when the committee meets again.
Of the many areas of disagreement, Plymale said, "I think we've worked through the majority of them, and we're getting close to consensus, but we're not there yet."
Chafin thinks Plymale may not have had enough votes on the committee to get the bill passed on Thursday.
It would be "a disaster" to put a governor's bill up for a vote and have it die in the Senate Education Committee, Chafin said.
Plymale said he hopes to bring the revised bill to the committee when it meets Tuesday.