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House passes Tomblin school reform bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education bill, which overhauls teacher-hiring practices and widens the yearly school calendar, just needs his signature to become law.

The House of Delegates passed the legislation (SB359) Friday by a 95-2 vote.

House Democrats praised the legislation as "bold" and comprehensive, while their Republican counterparts said the changes were "baby steps."

"No bill is perfect," said Delegate Josh Stowers, D-Lincoln, an assistant principal at Horace Mann Middle School in Charleston, "but this bill does a whole lot of good things. This is going to be good for kids."

The state Senate passed the bill unanimously on Monday.

Education reform stood at the top of Tomblin's legislative agenda. The bill followed a sweeping $750,000 audit of West Virginia's public schools system. The report said West Virginia has one of the most highly regulated education systems in the country, has too much administrative overhead and has boxed itself in with cumbersome laws that don't allow for innovation.

Tomblin's education bill incorporated some of the audit's recommendations, but left out many others. The governor also has issued executive orders and worked with the state Board of Education to fix problems identified in the audit.

"Overall, I think we got an excellent bill," Tomblin said after a news conference following the House vote.

The governor described the bill as "landmark legislation." He said it will improve teaching, increase student achievement and ensure "all public education will be delivered locally, not by Charleston," referring to the state Department of Education.

"We've spent months crafting this historic legislation," Tomblin said. "I believe our kids will be better prepared for future opportunities because of this bill."

Before Friday's vote, House Republicans said Tomblin's bill fell short.

"I thought we had a golden opportunity to enact change," said Delegate Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, "but this is just a feel-good bill with baby steps in the right direction."

House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said Tomblin's bill "didn't get to where we needed to go." Armstead said the bill doesn't shift enough decision-making power from the Department of Education to local schools.

"I don't think it's bold; I don't think it's comprehensive," Armstead said. "But we can be bold and comprehensive if we continue to work on this issue. We still have a lot of work to do on education."

Democrats lauded the bill, predicting that it will lead to significant gains in student achievement.

"It's fair. It's bold. It's innovative," said Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton. "What I see is an outstanding piece of legislation that the people of West Virginia can be proud of."

Delegates Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, and Larry Kump, R-Berkeley, were the only two delegates who voted against the bill.

Tomblin's bill hit a snag in the Senate two weeks ago, after teachers unions lambasted the legislation, saying it punished teachers and would do nothing to improve student achievement.

The original bill significantly de-emphasized the role seniority would play in teacher hires. The original bill also would have allowed Teach for America -- a program that places new college graduates at struggling schools -- to operate in West Virginia.

In response to teachers union complaints, state lawmakers -- with Tomblin's blessing -- revised the bill, removing Teach for America and giving seniority greater weight in hiring decisions.

Under the legislation passed Friday, teachers would be hired using 11 factors. Seniority is one of nine factors that would get equal weight. The other two factors -- principal and faculty senate recommendations -- would receive double weight under the new hiring system.

The bill also expands the yearly school calendar from 43 weeks to 48 weeks. The new calendar will give schools more flexibility to make up snow days and lost classroom time, helping to ensure students receive 180 days of instruction, the bill's supporters said.

"Obviously," Tomblin said, "the more time in the classroom, the better the chances of student achievement increasing."

Tomblin, lawmakers and teachers union leaders said Friday's vote was an important start to reforming education in West Virginia, a state with student test scores that are among the lowest in the country.

"We can pat ourselves on the back for this," said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, "but it's time to roll up our sleeves and move forward as we make education for every child in West Virginia the cornerstone."

The governor is expected to sign the bill within a few days.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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