CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The West Virginia Senate passed a sweeping GOP education bill Monday that would allow the state's first charter schools, a move that has drawn heavy protests from teachers.
Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled chamber approved the bill 18-16. It now moves to the office of Gov. Jim Justice, who has expressed support for the measure.
The wide-ranging proposal would allow for a staggered implementation of charter schools, limiting the state to three charters until 2023 then letting three more go up every three years after that. It also contains a pay raise for teachers.
Debate over the creation of charters has consumed the legislature since a similar bill launched a two-day teacher strike in February, paralyzing the school system.
Democrats and union leaders have opposed efforts to install charters as a move driven by outside interests that will steer money away from public schools. It's been called a "Frankenstein bill" during hours-long legislative slogs. Scores of educators have returned to the Capitol for the special legislative session, filling the halls with booming chants and songs.
On Monday, debate was short but came with the threat of a lawsuit.
"I believe that the majority party is under a misapprehension that when this bill is challenged in court that the newly elected and appointed members of the Supreme Court will see favorably the constitutional fragrance of this bill," said Democratic Sen. Michael Woelfel, who said "the bill contemplates multiple objects, which conflicts with the West Virginia Constitution."
Republican Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who has led the push for charters in the state, has consistently pointed to poor test scores as reason to change the education system. He batted down the notion that the bill is unconstitutional.
"We do comprehensive bills around here all the time, omnibus bills all the time. That's a red herring," he said, adding that such a legal challenge "would stand no chance in court."
Union leaders have said that the summer timing of the special session was a move to undercut the impact of another strike but maintain that they have other plays to make.
"The next option we're going to go is the 2020 elections. We want to make sure we elect people who are going to listen to West Virginians to the House and Senate, not the outside interest groups," said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.
The House of Delegates passed the bill last week.
The Republican governor has tweeted in support for the bill, calling it a "major step toward building new opportunities for our children." After the vote Monday, Justice tweeted, "I applaud the @wvsenate for passing the education bill tonight. This is the correct resolution that aids our teachers, students, and all those in the education community and I look forward to signing it."
He called the special legislative session after lawmakers failed to agree on education measures following a teacher strike during the regular session. That proposal eventually died in the House after educators packed the state Capitol and argued it was retaliation for last year's nine-day strike over raises and health insurance, which helped inspire similar movements in multiple states .
Justice had asked lawmakers to go out and seek input from the public before returning. Public forums on education were held statewide, at the end of which the Department of Education released a report saying 88% of people who answered a comment card at the meetings opposed the creation of charters.