WHEELING - Legislation proposed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and aimed at improving West Virginia schools unanimously passed the state Senate Monday, but not without some changes.
Tomblin's idea to involve the national Teach for America program in the state's schools was removed from Senate Bill 359. And the length of the school year - currently set at a maximum of 43 weeks - could be increased to as long as 48 weeks under the measure.
The bill, introduced by Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Glen Dale, moved on to the House of Delegates after the vote and was quickly assigned to the House Education Committee.
Hallie Mason, director of public policy for Tomblin, said despite the revisions to his original proposal, "the governor has not waived from his commitment to increasing student achievement."
"We look forward to discussing the legislation with the House of Delegates," she said. "It's important to note such a significant piece of legislation is looming in the Legislature, and we're not pushing up against the end of the session."
The regular session of the West Virginia Legislature ends April 13. Any bills to be voted on in the final days of the session must be passed out of their house of origin by April 3.
Kessler said he worked extensively with Tomblin on the education bill, and he expects the end product to be easily accepted in the House with minimal changes - and perhaps passed later this week.
"Absolutely it is the governor's No. 1 priority, and I agree it is the No. 1 priority for the state to improve our education system," Kessler said. "It gives the teachers freedom to teach and makes sure our kids are in class 180 days."
Changes added to the bill passed Monday include the following:
Teach for America recruits college graduates to teach in high-need rural and urban school districts for two years. Provisions to increase the nonprofit organization's presence in West Virginia were removed from the bill amid concerns about placing non-qualified teachers in the state's classrooms.
Instead, the state Board of Education would examine all current and potential forms of alternate certification, with a particular focus on programming that would "enhance the ability to place effective teachers in areas of high need," Mason said.
Current law provides a 43-week limit on the school calendar. Under the legislation, the new limit would be 48 weeks, leaving four consecutive weeks in local school calendars to provide time for school maintenance without students and teachers in the building.
Also, a minimum of 40 minutes would be provided for elementary school planning periods - up from the current minimum of 30 minutes.
Policies for hiring teachers would be changed to give principals and faculty senates weighted authority in choosing educators. New provisions would require that a county board hire a teacher if the faculty senate, the principal and the superintendent agree regarding the most qualified candidate.
"One of Gov. Tomblin's goals was to get high-quality teachers in classrooms and have faculty senates more involved in the hiring process," Mason said.
Under the measure, six in-service days currently provided to teachers could be converted to instructional days to make up for school cancellations.
"We've done away with some of the in-service education days when teachers would go to get continuing education," Kessler said. "On those days, the only one getting education was the teachers, and that will be ended by this bill."
He applauded West Virginia teachers' unions who were "willing to make concessions."
"I would be misleading if I said they were completely happy," Kessler noted. "Change is tough, but they're willing to give it a chance."