Legislative Liaison Comments
SUMMARY OF THE 2012 LEGISLATIVE SESSION
By Tom Smith, VASS Legislative Liaison
Virginia’s General Assembly gathered on January 11, 2012 for what is termed” the long session.” For the next several months, the Delegates and Senators proposed, passed and rejected hundreds of bills impacting public education in the Commonwealth. I have come to Richmond to testify and monitor these actions for over twenty years. Yet I have never witnessed a legislative environment as negative toward the activities occurring in our public schools. From an emphasis on school choice and vouchers to the need to limit a school’s ability to discipline its students and control the learning environment, bills were introduced to take control and funding from local school divisions. It is fortunate that we were able to limit, modify or restrict these efforts. There has never been a year in which the saying “the best offense is a good defense” was more true.
Given that we monitored over two hundred bills, I will try to highlight the major initiatives under the headings of virtual\charter schools, student discipline\parent notification, personnel\school mandates and Virginia Retirement System.
While there were many bills on charter and virtual schools as part of Governor McDonnell’s educational agenda, the ones with the main impact centered on how these programs are to be funded and who maintains control of the process. House Bill 1173 set a minimum level of funding for charter school students and requires a school board to negotiate the availability of unused facilities and property to approved charter school applicants. This bill passed and has been signed by the Governor. A mandate to provide all students access to fulltime virtual educational programs and have the funding provided to follow the child was at the heart of the Governor’s efforts in Senate Bill 598.
Through a great deal of work by the educational legislative team, this bill did not come out of conference committee. This issue is not dead and will be revised during next year’s Session. School divisions are going to be required to report their efforts and plans to address the availability of on-line learning to students.
House Bills 365, 366, and 544, dealt with limiting a school’s ability to suspend a student and \or require that educational services continue from the first day of suspension. All of these bills were continued until next year with the recommendation that the issue be studied during the interim. After a lot of work by the education legislative team, all of the parent notification bills (HB 656, HB 1080, SB 167 and SB 168) either did not make it out of committee or were pulled by the patron.
Personnel and School Mandates:
Certainly, the teacher contract bills (HB 576 and SB 438) were the most significant school related personnel bills introduced this year outside of the retirement initiatives. The effort to significantly change the teacher and administrative contract structure to end continuing contracts was a major part of the Governor’s education initiatives and it was supported by both VASS and VSBA. SB 438 was defeated in the Senate and HB 576 was carried over until the 2013 General Assembly Session. I think that the future of these efforts will be in doubt next year unless some significant changes are made to the bill.
In terms of school mandates, we saw major changes made to the structure of the secondary graduation requirements and diplomas (HB 1061 and SB 489). The education team was successful in having the original bills modified to reduce the adverse cost to school divisions and provide greater flexibility to students. The issues around third grade reading ( HB 1181) sailed through the regular session only to be amended by Governor McDonald to mandate student retention if certain criteria were not met. These amendments were rejected by the House of Delegates after significant lobbying from across the Commonwealth.
A new mandate on schools (HB 1107) will be to provide to have on hand auto-injectable epinephrine devices to assist students who may experience a severe allergic reaction. Finally, efforts returned to allow home school students to participate in high school sports sponsored by the Virginia High School League without enrolling in public schools (HB 947). This passed the House of Delegates but was defeated in the Senate committee. I am confident that it will return next year.
Virginia Retirement System (VRS):
It seems that there were a number of VRS related bills with the major changes being laid out in two or three. Senate Bill 497 changed a long standing policy that allowed school boards to pay certain employees’ five percent contributions toward their retirement. While this bill requires the employee to again pay the 5%, it also requires the school board to provide a 5% increase in compensation. This will be an added cost to school boards and can be phased in over a five year period. Both House Bill 1130 and Senate Bill 498 address changing VRS from a defined benefit program to a hybrid program to which also includes aspects of a defined contribution program. The VRS changes passed this year are certainly more complicated than can be fully discussed here. Please refer to your local school board or the VRS office for more information.
In addition to the initiatives mentioned, there were considerable efforts made concerning the Labor Day bill (HB 1063) and the State Budget (HB 1301 and HB 1300). While efforts to allow school boards to set their own school calendar passed the House of Delegates, they were defeated in the Senate committee.
The State Budget was finally passed on April 18, 2012. Even with funding for public education increased over that proposed by Governor McDonnell, other changes in VRS rates and added mandates will continue to place school divisions in great fiscal stress. State support of public education remains below that which is necessary to make up for past declines in funding.
I have tried to highlight some of the major activities of this year’s session. There were certainly more than space would allow (i.e. the passage of a tuition tax credit bill). The successes we experienced this year were mainly due to the combined efforts of the educational lobbyists inRichmond, the VASS membership and assistance from local school staffs.
To all I say, “WELL DONE.”