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WV House passes education reform bill

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Bold reform or baby steps?

Depends on who you ask.

Members of the House of Delegates who spoke on the merits of Senate Bill 359, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education reform bill, had differing opinions as to why the bill should pass. And although a 95-2 majority approved the legislation on March 22, some Republicans said they were reluctant to press the green button.  

"This is just a feel-good bill with some baby steps in the right direction," Delegate Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, said before the vote.

"I regrettably support the bill."

Delegate Larry Kump, R-Berkeley, was one of two delegates to vote no on the bill. When speaking before the vote, Kump said he wasn't sure how he would vote because some issues, particularly the provisions relating to the requirements for state superintendent, "befuddled" him.

"My reaction to that was ‘really'," Kump said of changes to the requirements. "I'm concerned Senate Bill 359 waters down requirements for state super, and (it) removes the salary cap."

For those reasons and others, Kump voted no.

"What made my last-minute decision, because I really was torn … there was a lot of good in that bill, but there are some things in there that really disturbed me that I think are being pushed under the carpet," Kump said after the vote. "And then I saw how the bill was going - overwhelming for it, and I thought somebody has to be willing to stand up, walk the plank and stand up and speak to these issues, and that's why I voted why I did."

Delegate Mary Poling, D-Barbour, spent about 15 minutes explaining the bill prior to the vote. She summarized changes to the school calendar, teacher hiring practices and superintendent requirements that were the result of hours of meetings to hammer out compromises between the Senate, House and stakeholders.

Although the bill pleased both chambers' education committees and teachers' unions, it doesn't go far enough, some Republicans said.

Delegate John McCuskey, R-Kanawha, said he was happy to vote in favor of the bill, but he wished the legislation was stronger.

"There are still major holes in our education system," he said. "Each of these deficiencies hurt our kids.

"This is a first step, thankfully in the right direction, but it is only that."

But Democrats were unapologetic in their support of the bill, commending Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, for his leadership and Tomblin for pushing education reform. Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, went as far as to call the bill an "outstanding piece of legislation."

"This is a great opportunity and I think it sends a great message. We can come together in a bipartisan way to address a very, very serious issue," Boggs said.

And although he supports it, Delegate Josh Stowers, D-Lincoln, said neither SB 359 or any other bill the Legislature passes is perfect. But to him, the matter of education reform is a personal one. Stowers is an assistant principal at Horace Mann Middle School in Kanawha County.

"In good faith, could never, never do anything that I thought would be bad for (students)," he said. "I walk into school every day, make decision about their safety, about their futures. I do that with the utmost seriousness. Some of them don't have somebody looking out for them. We have to be that person. We have to be the ones making those decisions."

But House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said the education reform bill doesn't go far enough. He pointed out the basis of the bill is the widely-touted education efficiency audit that was released last year. While the reform bill did address some of the issues highlighted in the audit, Armstead said the legislation should be the foundation of better reform to come.

"I think when we got here this session we had in front of us something we'd had for about a year — this education audit," Armstead said before the vote. "It has a great deal, I think, to say about our education system in West Virginia. If there's disappointment over this bill, it's because there are so many things we had as resources in this report that could've been in this bill. If we do anything form this point forward, I hope we don't say, as we sometimes do, well, that's done, lets' move on to something else. And we pat ourselves on the back and move on. We can't move on just yet. We have a lot of work to do in education."

Armstead offered an amendment Thursday that would change the number of administrators in the West Virginia Department of Education, as suggested in the audit. That amendment failed mostly along party lines, but Armstead noted Friday that the Legislature should allow Department of Education officials to do their jobs and give them the opportunity to do the things they said they were going to do.

But although Armstead voted in favor of SB 359, it doesn't mean he's happy with it.

"I don't think it's bold; I don't think it's comprehensive," he said. "But we can be bold and comprehensive if we continue to work on this issue."