Senate Education Chair Amy Grady, R-Mason, during a January committee meeting. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislature

On the white board in Senate Education Committee Chair Amy Grady’s office are six bullet points. Including ideas like safety, teacher leave and four-day school weeks, these are the big picture policies that Grady hopes to accomplish. But she knows her time is limited.

“You can’t fix all the world’s problems in 60 days,” Grady, R-Mason, said.

Grady, a 4th grade public teacher, took over the committee chair position this year from homeschool parent Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson. The somewhat symbolic switch was made as Republican legislative leadership announced in the lead up to the session that after several years of pushing bills to bolster private and alternative schools in the state, this year, they would work to fix the state’s struggling public school system.

With the session just past the halfway point, a number of bills aimed at improving public education still have momentum. Here’s a round up of some of the bills that are still alive and could have strong impacts on public education in the state.

The whiteboard in Sen. Amy Grady’s office. Photo by Ian Karbal

Improving young student literacy

The most ambitious of the proposals comes from one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay. His bill, along with a similar one from Grady that’s moving through the Senate, aims to bolster reading and math performance in early grade levels with a three-pronged approach.

The goal of both bills is to increase learning outcomes in kindergarten through 3rd grade students, and they both seek to implement similar new tools to achieve this. 

The bills require public schools with large K-3 classes to hire more teachers’ assistants — an estimated 2,500 in all to keep student-to-staff ratios low (10-to-1 in the Senate’s version of the bill and 12-to-1 in the House’s). This would hopefully allow struggling students to receive more individual focus, and would make it easier for teachers to divide their class into groups of students meeting grade level, and those who need remedial assistance.

Secondly, the bills would require teachers to be trained in and implement a phonics-based literacy curriculum. The curriculum is based on what’s called the science of reading, an approach to teaching that comes from studies of brain development. From Mississippi to Oakland, California, implementation of such curriculums in early grade classrooms has led to higher rates of students meeting grade-level reading standards, though the method does have some detractors. The bill also calls for a similarly science-based approach to teaching math.

Along with this, the bills attempt to create a multi-point intervention system to catch students in early grades who fall behind. They instruct the Board of Education to adopt a testing strategy that will be administered in early-grade classrooms three times a year to catch students falling behind. Students lagging behind will have their parents notified, receive specialized instruction and could ultimately be held back if they’re not reading at grade-level by the 3rd grade.

A recent change to the Senate version of the bill in the Senate Finance Committee also incorporated language from a separate bill introduced by former education chair Rucker aimed at improving support for students with dyslexia. Rucker’s separate bill had originally called for the hiring of trained professionals to screen students for dyslexia; the change to the Senate version of the literacy bill would instead train teachers, which Rucker said she doesn’t believe goes far enough.

“You have to mandate that it happens,” Rucker said. “It can’t be optional. You’re leaving kids at a disadvantage and hurting them for the rest of their lives.”

She added that probably won’t change because at this stage it’s unlikely an amendment adding to the cost of the bill could pass.

(The Senate passed its version of this bill on Feb. 14, 2023. It was successfully amended on the floor by Rucker to add two dyslexia screenings a year for all K-3 students.)

Fighting teacher shortages with pay raises

For years, West Virginia teachers and teachers’ unions have pleaded with the Legislature for increased pay. Following multiple strikes in the past decade over salaries, public employee health insurance issues and lawmakers bolstering private schools with public money, West Virginia’s teacher shortage has grown.

“You need to look at these vacancies now,” said Dale Lee, the president of the West Virginia Educators Association, a teacher’s union. “You have to increase the pay, make it competitive.”

Lee and other advocates for increasing teacher pay argue it will help attract more young people to the profession and retain experienced teachers; it will stop certified teachers from seeking higher-paying jobs in bordering states; and it will generally ease the burden on teachers who often need to work outside of the school day because of the jobs’ demands.

But according to Grady, any proposal to do so is likely to get stuck in either the House or Senate finance committees.

“We wanna get that discussion started,” Grady said. “It’s probably going to end up in Finance and stay put, but at least for future sessions we can say, ‘remember that bill? Let’s talk about that again.’” 

She added that, “It’s not off the table. We obviously want to take care of tax cuts and things first and then see what we can do.”

Still, there are two proposals that have made it through the House and Senate Education committees, respectively. A bill that passed the Senate committee earlier this week would raise the starting salary of teachers in the state, but wouldn’t affect teachers who have been in the profession long enough to see multiple raises. It’s estimated to cost the state $24 million a year.

The House bill would raise teacher pay across the board, including a starting salary raise from $39,000 to $44,000, and is estimated by a fiscal note to cost $171 million per year.

Both proposals would put West Virginia starting teacher salaries more in line with neighboring states. As it stands, West Virginia lags all but Kentucky.

Of course, there are other bills moving through the Legislature that could have the opposite effect on teacher retention. According to a survey of public school teachers across the state, “showing more respect for educators” was a key priority for teachers, and that respect extends to perceived slights from the Legislature.

Those include politicized discussions of curriculum among lawmakers and resulting legislation dictating what teachers can and can’t teach, and how they can discuss complex subjects in the classroom.

One example of this is a bill that failed last session on a technicality, but was revived and passed the Senate this year. That bill, called the “Anti-Racism Act,” would put limitations on how teachers can discuss race and racism in America. Critics call it an attempt to censure discussions about the realities of racism in America. Grady is a co-sponsor.

Similarly, another bill that passed one House committee has drawn criticism as an attempt to censure teacher discussions of complex social topics in classrooms. That bill, called “the parents’ bill of rights,” enshrines “the parental right to direct education,” and makes it easier for parents who think schools or educators they perceive as violating that right to sue schools or government bodies.

And it’s not just teachers…

Teaching positions are not the only ones West Virginia schools are having a hard time filling. From bus drivers, to counselors to substitutes, the school staff shortage spans the gamut of workers that help keep schools running year-round.

Similar to the House bill that would raise teacher salaries across the board, another has been introduced and passed the House Education Committee that would do the same for school staff.

A number of bills are aimed at raising pay for other necessary school staff, or otherwise filling empty positions. One would allow retired bus drivers to work more hours and continue to collect their retirement benefits. Another clarifies the duties of school counselors to ensure that they are available to students and not doing administrative duties required by staff shortages elsewhere. Yet another, that has yet to be brought up in committee, is aimed explicitly at cafeteria staff.

If any of these bills raising salaries become law, they’d be in addition to yet another 5% state employee pay raise that Gov. Jim Justice has said he hopes to include in the budget.

Summer feeding

During the COVID pandemic, schools and school districts played a key role in making sure that West Virginia’s low-income students did not go hungry, even as a transition to remote learning meant that many who relied on schools for nutritious meals would now be stuck at home.

One bill is a step towards enshrining that program, but at the moment it contains no funding and no mandate.

It would, however, require county school authorities to survey their public schools to find out the nutritional needs in their student bodies, something child health advocates have said is sorely needed in the data-poor state.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Minority Leader Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell said the idea was to help schools work with the existing network of nonprofits that already help feed poor families but may not always know where they are.

What to expect as the deadline to introduce bills approaches

With the session more than halfway through, there is little time to introduce new bills, but both Grady and House Education Chair Del. Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, still have a few bills they’d like to see passed this year.

Both cited fixing — or at least shoring up — the Public Employee Insurance Agency — which has long faced financial difficulties and raising premiums.

Last week, a bill to address some of the shortfalls of state insurance for teachers and other public employees moved through the Senate Health and Human Resource committee. As it stands, the bill could mean some teachers will have to pay higher premiums for their spouses’ coverage. The goal, however, is to keep the state’s struggling Public Employee Insurance Agency solvent. 

Another policy that is expected to be introduced as a bill in the coming week is Grady’s proposal for a four-day school week pilot program. Grady said she’s been in contact with the superintendent and a number of county boards of education about the pilot program. It’s based on successful programs in other states that have found a four day week improved student engagement and teacher morale.

The catch, Grady said, is that she wouldn’t want to pass the bill without the full buy-in of five or six counties that would want to try the pilot.

In her program, four days of each school week would be dedicated to typical instruction. On the fifth day, students would still attend school, but follow an individualized or self-directed lesson plan, similar to what may be expected at a Montessori school. Or teachers could zero in on students who are struggling.

“Teachers are really supportive of this,” Grady said. “Board members are a little nervous because they’re worried about what parents will think and it’s not gonna be useful to anyone if you force a board to do it. So I don’t know where that’ll go.”

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.