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Tomblin's education bill is on hold until Tuesday

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All the stakeholders involved in West Virginia's education reform seem to want to take the time to get things right.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education reform bill, Senate Bill 359, was expected to be voted out of the Senate Education Committee late March 7 after accepting a committee substitute to the bill with some changes to appease the bill's detractors.

The bill was first discussed in the committee Feb. 28, then twice March 5, with former teachers, business groups and teachers unions speaking for and against the massive measure.

Click here to read our coverage of the March 5 meetings.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, quickly adjourned the afternoon committee meeting March 7, and several committee members said the parties were still working on possible changes. The committee met again at 5 p.m. March 7, but only for Plymale to say he wanted to wait to move the strongest bill possible.

"What we've been doing, we've been working on language and drafting and working with the governor's office and other interested parties in trying to make sure that we craft a bill and get the changes we need to come out with a strong bill, as we've all been trying to do," Plymale said.

He said he did not feel comfortable with bringing the current language proposed for changing the bill in front of the full committee without fine-tuning it. The meeting was adjourned before 5:30 p.m.

The possible committee substitute had been discussed during the March 5 meeting, but had not been widely seen.

Plymale said the committee, Tomblin's office and education representatives would continue to work throughout the weekend to continue to come to agreements, and the committee would work with the bill again Tuesday, March 12.

Plymale said there are "many major issues in this bill," but he said Tomblin's bill was "very good" to start with.

"We're trying to come with the same parameters we've had in the bill, maybe with some different language, that still keeps it strong in many areas, but addressing the issues I think have been brought up in legitimate concerns and addressing those one by one," Plymale said when Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, asked Plymale how much work was left to get the bill to the point where it could be ready for a vote.

"I'd be crazy to state an amount," Plymale said. "I think we've worked through a majority of them, and we are getting pretty close to some consensus, but we're not there yet."

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said he had several meetings with lawmakers and Tomblin's office March 7 to continue working on the areas of the bill his organization is troubled by: teacher hiring, a flexible school calendar, teacher planning periods and allowing the Teach for America organization into West Virginia.

"Our issues are teacher and service personnel issues with the caveat that we revolve it around the students," Lee said. "If you're going to make reform, it should be reform that makes sense."

Lee said he thought the groups had "made considerable ground already," and he pointed out that it is still quite early in the process of the bill becoming a law.

Once it is voted out of the Senate Education Committee, it still has to be discussed by the Senate Finance Committee, then the full Senate, and if it passes there, the process repeats in the House of Delegates.

Tomblin's Chief of Staff Rob Alsop said after the March 7 meeting that he was in "complete agreement" with Plymale's decision to take a few more days to work on the bill.

"There are a lot of issues where we made progress, but there are still a lot of issues where we still need work," Alsop said.

Alsop said they have been trying to work through several scenarios to "get it right" with teacher planning periods, and they continue to talk about alternative things such as Teach for America to get recent graduates in the classroom.

"We want to do that in the right way," Alsop said. "We've tried to listen a lot and make sure that happens."

Alsop said it's more a matter of clarifying language than making concessions.

"The fact that we're already talking about moving it through one of the major committees 24 days in … that's quite a feat for comprehensive legislation," Alsop said.

Alsop said on the House side, he knows Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, and other members of House leadership are "committed to getting a good education bill, and we're committed to working with them."

As for American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia President Judy Hale, she said they had been meeting "almost non-stop" with Tomblin's office and the Senate Education Committee staff. She agreed that all the parties had made "a great deal of progress."

"I'm very encouraged by the discussions we've had," she said. "It takes a long time to change the language, and it's a very complicated process."

Hale said they want a bill that is good for children, fair for teachers and everybody is a stakeholder in education.

"I'm not surprised that it's taking a long time," she said. "They have been very accessible.

"I feel very good about the progress that is being made."

Both the WVEA and the AFT-WV put out calls to action among their members to oppose the bill. Hale said when her members first saw the bill as it was introduced, they were upset "with good reason," because there were some things that would not work when put into practice and would not raise students' academic achievement.

"I think it gets better as we work through it," Hale said. "I think once we see the language, if the bill is what we hope it is, then I think people will be calmed."