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SENATORS MOVE TO KEEP TEACHERS, TEACH MORALS

May 25, 2001 — The Senate Education Committee approved legislation Friday to set up a sin tax intended to make it easier to attract and retain public school teachers. It also gave the go-ahead to mandatory "character education" from kindergarten through 12th grade.
The sin tax bill, dubbed the Teacher Recruitment and Training Act of 2001, was sponsored by the committee chair, Sen. Norman Jn. Baptiste. It would give scholarships to University of the Virgin Islands students who commit to teaching in V.I. public schools for at least four years. The scholarships would be funded by a "small increase" in taxes on luxury cars, cigarettes, ammunition and alcohol.
Baptiste said the incentive is needed to fill about a hundred teaching vacancies on St. Croix. Tyrone Molyneaux, president of the St. Croix chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said at the meeting that the number is closer to 200. There are also about 50 vacancies in the St. Thomas-St. John district, according to Education Department officials.
"That speaks volumes in terms of the problem we face in the territory," Baptiste said, adding that mainland recruiters were in the Virgin Islands recently trying to lure teachers here to go elsewhere. "If that isn’t enough to serve as a wake-up call, I don’t know what else will," he said.
Education Commissioner Ruby Simmonds, cool to Baptiste’s proposal, asked what would happen if there were a tax shortfall.
Nonetheless, the bill passed on a 5-2 vote, with two senators absent. It will now move to the Senate Rules Committee.
Another Baptiste proposal, to establish a "character education" program in the schools, cleared the committee Friday after having been shot down in committee in the 23rd Legislature.
The bill would set times in class and during weekly assemblies where teachers would seek to instill positive character traits in students, from kindergarten through high school.
Citing an erosion of discipline and morals that were once instilled by families, schools and churches, Baptiste said, "Clearly we need to take steps to reverse … the breakdowns that have occurred in society." He dismissed opponents' contention that morals cannot be legislated.
Simmonds said she also wasn’t in favor of this proposal. The Education Department and the Board of Education have the authority to establish curriculum, and there isn’t necessarily a need for a new instructional program, she said.
Simmonds said "character education" is already being taught in several schools, including Alexander Henderson Elementary. But even with what is taught in social studies classes and language arts, she said, mandatory character education cannot ensure that students will come away with better social skills.
"The truth is, these values can’t be taught in isolation," Simmonds said. "What is taught in the schools must be reinforced in the homes."
The bill now goes to the Rules Committee, where political observers said it will likely be amended.

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