Education? Add to scholarship, tuition acts
Education has been a hot topic during the last two years of West Virginia's legislative sessions. With teacher strikes two consecutive years, legislators have passed along back-to-back 5 percent pay raises.
But there has not been as much talk in the lead up to this year's session about issues specific to education reform or teacher pay.
This year, people on both sides of political divide say they just want to work towards a common goal — making education better for the students in West Virginia.
During the 2019 legislative session, Senate Bill 1 passed, is in place and is affecting change. The law, called the West Virginia Invests Grant, provides free tuition to community and technical colleges.
Legislators also passed an education reform bill – but they had to go into overtime to do so. Originally introduced by the Senate Education Committee chock-full of topics including charter schools and education savings accounts, it was eventually passed and was signed into law in a special summer session.
Since the bill's signing, the West Virginia Board of Education has called for public comment on proposed provisions for the implementation of charter schools in the state.
Del. Jeffrey Pack (R-Raleigh) said with passage of Senate Bill 1 last year, he hopes to help expand on it in regards to vocational schools this year.
Right now, current law allows students to attend community and technical colleges throughout the state for free with some stipulations, however, Pack said if it were to expand to vocational schools, more people would have the opportunity to receive their commercial driver's license, receive a welding certification, become a licensed practical nurse (LPN) and more.
"We could really utilize that program," Pack said. "It would just require these vocational schools to become accredited. We hope to work on that this year."
Pack isn't the only one hoping the West Virginia Invests Grant is given more attention this year. New River Community and Technical College's President Bonny Copenhaver hopes legislators will tweak the law to open doors to students already working towards a degree.
House Bill 2059, a bill that would expand the amount of PROMISE scholarship (a merit-based financial aid program) funds awarded to students majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), is set to be introduced at some point during this year's legislative session. Copenhaver feels if passed, this could aid the West Virginia Invests Grant.
"For many residents of West Virginia, scholarships like PROMISE are necessary to make access to higher education affordable. Investing in these and other similar scholarships that support continuing education creates a stronger workforce for the state's economy," Copenhaver said.
In order to complement an increase in the PROMISE scholarship for STEM majors, opening the doors of the West Virginia Invests Grant to STEM majors and other transfer programs would help advance the state's college completion goals and support a stronger and well-trained workforce, Copenhaver added.
"The West Virginia Invests program brought students to college who never thought they would be able to attend, and we should build on the momentum that was started," she said.
Another bill set to be introduced during this upcoming session is Senate Bill 131 — also known as the Tim Tebow Bill — which would allow children who are homeschooled to play sports in West Virginia's public schools.
The bill has been debated many times years past, and last year it died in the House Education Committee. Sen. Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson), the chair of the Senate Education Committee, hopes to have more luck with it this year.
"There is definite interest in increasing the participation of home school students in extracurriculars at public schools although the details have always been challenging to work out," Rucker said. "We will see whether we can get it worked out this year."
Jamie Buckland, who serves as the Legislative Liaison for the Raleigh Educational Association of Christian Homeschoolers (REACH), is an advocate for the Tim Tebow Bill, and also hopes it will make its way through the legislature this year.
“I’ve heard opposition argue you that a student must attend the brick and mortar school, but students enrolled in virtual school never walk the halls and are currently eligible. I’ve heard them argue funding, they get funding for every single homeschooled child and yet we cost them nothing," Buckland explained. "I’ve heard them argue oversight, but the previous bills, both from the House and Senate, had fantastic language ensuring we jump through adequate hoops to be eligible. So what now?"
"My question is this — is West Virginia intent on limiting opportunities for the youth of West Virginia? Or providing them?," she asked.
Buckland said this year she has a hope for a partnership between those she advocates for and the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission (WVSSAC) built on reasonable oversight and a desire to grant all youth in West Virginia the right to earn eligibility.
"If this passes, as it did in 2017, and (Governor Jim Justice) vetoes it again, many of us are going to have to question the rationale behind refusing kids the rights they would have across the state line," Buckland said.
Education union leaders have also put their opinions into the mix on what educational outcomes they hope to see during this year's session, including several of the same topics they were concerned over last year including more funding for health insurance, teacher retainment, and mental health services for students.
Co-President for the Raleigh County Education Association (RCEA) John Quesenberry told The Register-Herald that RCEA members are hoping the Legislature will take steps to find long-term, sustainable funding for the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) to deal with the problem of health care and its costs for not only educators but all state public workers.
Quesenberry added recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a major priority among RCEA members, so continuing tomake salaries competitive with surrounding states, funding retirement, offering scholarships or paying for college education in exchange for graduates teaching in high needs communities or subject areas would all be ideas they are backing.
"Lifting the cap on the days a retiree could substitute would help with the dire need of many counties with substitute teachers and service personnel," he said.
This year, RCEA is hoping to see changes enacted by both the Legislature and the State Board of Education to provide greater opportunities to all the state's students, Quesenberry said — whether it be increasing the availability of vocational courses to lower grades in high school as well as middle school, or increasing the number of advanced placement and dual credit courses for students.
"We are especially interested in the Legislature trying to help deal with the problems many of our students and their families face outside of school which negatively impact our students success in school — the opioid epidemic, foster care, availability of mental health services, trauma care, and access to internet at home," Quesenberry said.
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