CHARLESTON — The Republican-led West Virginia Legislature and the West Virginia Board of Education and Department of Education profess the same goals of improving educational attainment for all students, though recent years have seen these two sides often at odds.
Paul Hardesty, the new president of the state Board of Education, has seen both sides of this divide. As a former member of the Democratic minority in the Senate representing Logan County, Hardesty was often an eloquent and vocal critic of some of the education bills passed by the Republican majority. And as a relatively new member of the state board, he has seen his fellow board members take actions he doesn’t agree with.
A former member and past president of the Logan County Board of Education, Hardesty was chosen by his fellow board members as their new president, succeeding board member Miller Hall.
“It’s humbling. I had never envisioned in a million years that I would be on the state Board of Education. I sure didn’t envision being its president,” Hardesty said by phone earlier this week.
Now as the leader of the nine-member board charged by the state Constitution with the “general supervision of the free schools” in West Virginia, Hardesty believes it is time for lawmakers and state education officials to stop digging foxholes and come back together for the goals they both believe.
“I care about children deeply. I care about their future,” Hardesty said. “I just want to try to make a difference, and that’s why I’m there. I think we’re put in certain places for a reason, and I hope that I can do what’s best for the children in West Virginia.”
Some of the acrimony can be traced back four years ago to the first teachers’ strike in 2018. That year, lawmakers attempted a small pay raise for teachers and school service personnel, but that raise didn’t go far enough. Teachers and staff went on a nine-day strike that ended with lawmakers approving a 5% pay raise.
Gov. Jim Justice proposed an additional 5% raise for state employees and teachers and staff in 2019, but lawmakers tried to tie that raise to a massive education omnibus bill. Another strike occurred over two days. Justice called a special session immediately after the end of the 2019 regular session for lawmakers to work on a new omnibus bill, passing that later that summer.
The bill that passed, House Bill 206, included the teacher and staff raises, incentives for recruiting new teachers, increases in the school aid formula for county school systems, funding for wrap-around services, and more. But it also included the foundation for the state’s first public charter school pilot program. After one school was unable to receive approval from two counties, lawmakers amended the law and created the Professional Charter School Board as a charter school authorizer.
“The primary objective of this special session was to pass education reform,” said former Senate President Mitch Carmichael after the passage of HB 206 in 2019. “We just achieved that tonight. We’re thrilled about it. It’s been in the works in this state for more than 30 years. People have talked about doing it, and you just witnessed this Legislature deliver that monumental achievement.”
The Board of Education was not happy with the creation of public charter schools, but the board was responsible for approving rules for the charter school pilot project.
“Am I pleased about this? No. Am I 100% for charter schools? No,” said former board president Hall during a board meeting in 2021. “Is it what is best for kids? I don’t know.”
“The Legislature did this without our involvement. We did not ask them to do a charter school policy or code,” said board member Debra Sullivan. “Do we really want to commercialize our public education and outsource our children?”
Then, during the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers also passed a bill creating the Hope Scholarship educational savings account program. The Hope Scholarship allows parents to use $4,600 of the state school aid formula funding set aside for each student to pay for education programs outside of public schools, such as private school tuition, homeschooling and tutoring.
The Hope Scholarship was supposed to start this coming school year. By the end of May, more than 3,146 Hope Scholarship applications had been awarded at a cost of about $14.5 million. The program was only available for public school students, but the program opens up to all eligible public, private and homeschool students by 2026 and could cost as much as $102.9 million.
The program is under a preliminary and permanent injunction pending an appeal to the new Intermediate Court of Appeals. Three parents filed suit in January to block the program, suing state elected officials, legislative leaders and state education officials. But despite being defendants in the lawsuit, former board president Hall and State Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch filed court documents supporting the parents’ argument that the Hope Scholarship violated the state Constitution.
“The Hope Scholarship Program incentivizes students to exit the public school system and drains needed public funds from the state’s public schools,” Burch and Miller said in a statement last month. “As a result, it violates the West Virginia Constitution as it prevents the West Virginia Board of Education from providing a thorough and efficient education for all children.”
During the most recent legislative session that ended in March, lawmakers approved two constitutional amendments for the November ballot that could have implications for education. Amendment 2 would change language in the state Constitution to give lawmakers the authority to reduce or eliminate tangible machinery and equipment, inventory, and vehicle personal property taxes in the future.
The amendment won’t reduce or eliminate any rates, but county schools are concerned about how the Legislature will replace the revenue lost from eliminating those taxes. County governments and county school systems rely on revenue from property taxes, though lawmakers are developing a plan to directly fund counties from the general revenue budget.
Amendment 4 would give the Legislature authority to approve or reject rules and policies developed by the Department of Education and state Board of Education. Every other state department and agency must submit their proposed rules to the Legislature’s Rule-Making Review Committee, but education rules are not approved by lawmakers.