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WV lawmakers pass amended version of Justice’s education bill

By RYAN QUINN

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — At five minutes to midnight, the end of this year’s regular legislative session, the West Virginia Legislature completed Saturday passing a bill eliminating the current Regional Education Service Agencies, the state Office of Education Performance Audits and the mandate for public school year calendars to have 180 separate instructional days.

House Bill 2711, which was filed by Gov. Jim Justice and amended by lawmakers, would also ban the current Smarter Balanced standardized tests.

Both houses had passed iterations of the bill but hadn’t yet agreed to a single version until time was almost up. The Senate gave the final vote on the final version: 28-6. Only Democrats voted against it.

The House agreed to most of the Senate’s amended version Saturday afternoon, including the Smarter Balanced ban. But there was continued disagreement over what the school calendar language should say, and the House sent the bill back to the Senate with more amendments in a 69-31 vote.

Hours passed as the clock ticked toward midnight. Senate Education Committee Chairman Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, walked across the Capitol building from the Senate to the House around 9 p.m. because he thought the House hadn’t officially sent over the bill.

“No one asked me for it,” chief desk clerk Lora Thompson said around 10 p.m., when Mann apparently discovered that she already had it at the Senate podium.

“My gosh we’re pushing the clock,” Mann said around 10:40 p.m. When it finally passed, he said “I really don’t know what took so long.”

Alongside the Smarter Balanced ban, the Senate added, among other provisions, a line saying the state is “prohibited from implementing the Common Core academic standards.”

Department of Education officials didn’t express public concern with the Common Core line, despite the fact that the state’s math and English language arts standards are largely Common Core. Smarter Balanced was built specifically to align to Common Core.

Sarah Stewart, the department’s director of policy and government relations, previously said the same Common Core ban language in another Senate bill, which didn’t move forward in the House, wouldn’t actually require the state school board to change its current education standards.

”You can just keep stating things are enacted,” Delegate Michael Folk, R-Berkeley and a vocal Common Core opponent, said of the bill’s Common Core line. “It doesn’t make them true.”

”If we adopt that amendment, our teachers would be forced to come up with other standards and when?” Delegate Rick Moye, D-Raleigh asked on the House floor Saturday. “… If we accept this, are we doing away with the current standards we have now?”

House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan — conversing extensively with House Education Committee policy analyst Dave Mohr between trying to answer Moye’s questions — said the state wouldn’t be required to change standards.

During his January inauguration speech, Justice said his education plan would “include the elimination of a bunch of unnecessary agencies.”

He didn’t unveil the plan during his campaign, and waited until after his inauguration to file the bill on Feb. 23.

“It’s going to be a look at education in a different way that has never been looked at for a long, long, long time,” Justice said.

HB 2711 — if Justice, as expected, signs it — would dump the eight Regional Education Service Agencies (RESAs), established in law in 1972, and the Office of Education Performance Audits, created in 1998. The bill was estimated to save $3.7 million next fiscal year by nixing the regional agencies and $1.2 million by cutting the auditing office, but future possible savings or expenses are unclear.

The regional agencies are multi-county entities meant to aid county public school systems through, among other things, shared services and personnel.

The auditing office sends retired school administrators and current administrators into schools to assess factors including teaching of statewide education standards, student safety and principal leadership. The reviewers aren’t allowed to audit schools in the counties in which they work, and schools are made aware of the on-site review dates in advance.

Allen Brock, the office’s manager, said the office had only recently begun auditing every school in the state, and said over the past two school years it reviewed every public school and school system central office and was now set up to re-audit every school, central office and even Regional Education Service Agency office once every four years.

But neither the regional agencies nor the auditing office may truly disappear under the bill.

Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, earlier cited fears that nixing the auditing office could violate the landmark Recht decision, in which former Ohio County Circuit Judge Arthur Recht found the state’s public schools failed to meet a “thorough and efficient” standard demanded by the state Constitution.

“I would think it would be incumbent upon us and the board to set up some kind of a concept within their purview that, in fact, would be separate from my authority,” new state schools superintendent Steve Paine replied to Plymale, “so that we could ensure the intent and spirit of the Recht decision.”

As for the Regional Education Service Agencies, county school boards are allowed under the bill to form new regional agencies called “educational services cooperatives.”

The bill says “All references in this code to regional education service agencies or RESA’s mean an educational services cooperative as authorized under this section.”

A state school board policy currently sets which county school systems are in which regional agency, and the agencies are currently led by advisory boards.

Under the bill, school boards will be able to choose which other school boards they form regional agencies with, and governing councils, made up of school board members and superintendents from the counties in the cooperatives, will lead the cooperatives.

“This basically keeps RESAs in place, with one exception: that the state board doesn’t control them and that they’re controlled from the county level and the counties can get exactly what they want out of the RESAs,” said Joey Garcia, Justice’s senior counsel for legislation and policy.

“Naming it to abolish RESA is pretty strong,” said Mann, the Senate Education chairman. “It’s more of a restructuring.  RESAs are still gonna be there, it’s just a little different restructure. And you’ll see that within a year or so.”

“I am going to propose we throw Smarter Balanced in the trash can and we go to an ACT testing,” Justice had said during his Feb. 8 State of the State address.

The state school board previously stated it planned to get rid of Smarter Balanced. Justice has appointed five of the maximum of nine voting members it can hold.

But the Senate’s amendment to his bill means the state school board can’t backtrack on that pledge. The bill also includes language that would push the board toward adopting the traditional ACT as the state’s 11th-grade standardized test.

Justice filed the bill Feb. 23, and lawmakers took no action on it until March 22, when it appeared on the House Education Committee’s agenda for the first time and, after a four-hour meeting, passed that night out of committee.

It flew through the House to reach the Senate Education Committee, where on Wednesday morning Mann pulled it from the meeting agenda and said it was “dead.”

Mann said he pulled it because committee vice chairman Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, was attempting to add language from the failed Senate Bill 18 that Mann was sure the House wouldn’t have agreed to and was sure the governor would’ve vetoed.

SB 18 would’ve added to state law the statement that it’s “clearly within the Legislature’s authority to mandate, at any level of specificity” the academic standards that the state school board adopts.

Karnes proposed an amendment in Senate Education that didn’t go quite that far. He disputed the notion that his amendment almost sank the bill.

But Senate Education passed the bill out of committee Thursday morning, after Mann and GOP Senate leadership said they worked to persuade the committee to cooperate. Language similar to SB 18, but not including the aforementioned provision, was amended in.

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