The quest for ‘betterment’ in public education

Hoppy’s Commentary |

March 08, 2019

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Get ready for the upcoming statewide debate on education “betterment.”

Governor Jim Justice said that after the regular session ends at midnight Saturday lawmakers can “go out and listen to teachers, parents, community leaders, and all those with a vested interest in making education better in West Virginia.”

It’s expected that later in the spring, lawmakers will return to Charleston for a special session to put into a bill what they have heard from the stakeholders that will “focus on education betterment in West Virginia.”

The word here—betterment—is meaningful to this debate, and I don’t think it was chosen by accident.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, the point man for the failed Senate Bill 451, called the legislation “comprehensive education reform.” The teacher unions preferred to identify the measure, which they strongly opposed, as the “omnibus bill.” That’s a generic term that also served the union’s purpose of arguing that the pay raise was being unfairly grouped with other measures.

Apparently Justice did not want to start the new education bill debate by being associated with either side, so we have betterment, which is defined as improvement or advancement.

Okay, it’s just a word, but the parsing of the language is an indicator of just how difficult it’s going to be to get all the stakeholders to agree on what constitutes education reform.

Sorry…I mean betterment.

Justice is in a tough spot. Last fall, he promised a five percent pay raise for teachers and service workers starting July 1, 2019. Senate Republican leaders endorsed the idea. However, when the session began they rolled the pay raise into a larger bill—the now-infamous SB 451—that included charter schools and education savings accounts.

That bill collapsed in the House and that body was willing to adopt just the pay raise and call it a day. However, the majority of the Senate Republican caucus is firmly against a raise without additional changes they believe will improve public education.

Without Senate support, the pay raise was going to die this session, meaning Justice would have the embarrassment of failing to deliver on his promise even though he is of the same Republican Party as the majority of the Senate and the House.

Justice’s call for a special session is smart tactically. It gives him, and lawmakers, more time to develop an education plan that everyone can agree to. “I know our legislators, education community, and the people of West Virginia want our education system to be better and believe that our employees deserve a raise, so you have my word that we will get it done,” Justice said in a news release Wednesday night.

Frankly, Justice was late to the party this session in trying to broker a deal among the House, Senate and the stakeholders on the education bill. If there is going to be “betterment” in education—a plan that addresses the chronic underachievement of too many of our public schools, while also raising the salaries of our professional educators—Justice needs to take the lead.


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