Committee Moves UVI Tuition Bill and Mandatory V.I. History Bill Forward

Sen. Janelle Sarauw, right, raised her concern about students taking one course and getting free tuition with UVI’s Camille McKayle on Monday during a Committee on Education and Workforce hearing. ( Screenshot from Senate livestream.)

The Board of Education and the Department of Education don’t disagree with the wording in a bill proposed by Sen. Genevieve Whitaker that would “require that Virgin Islands and Caribbean history be taught specifically in kindergarten through 12th grade,” but the idea of making it a law was a different story.

Dionne Wells-Hedrington, commissioner nominee of the Department of Education, testified at the Committee on Education and Workforce Monday, “I don’t believe it needs to be a law.” She said she didn’t like the message the bill sent — “I don’t want the perception that the only way to get the Department of Education to move is to pass a law.”

She said the department was well on the way to doing what the bill would mandate. She added that a curriculum of study through all the grades would be implemented next school year. She emphasized that “for many years,” the subjects of Virgin Islands and Caribbean history and culture have been taught. According to the commissioner, “This is nothing new.”

That the discussion was not new appeared to be the reason the senators in the committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the Rules and Judiciary Committee with a favorable ruling.

Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory, after a discussion about history workbooks recently getting into schools, asked, “How can this be?” According to her, the workbooks for students in kindergarten through second grade were supposed to have been purchased 10 years ago.

Yvette McMahon-Arnold, director of Instructional Development, said the original publisher for the workbooks was taken over by another publisher, and the new publisher did not do customized history workbooks.

However, she added that a contract for workbooks for grades three through eight was almost final, and those workbooks should be available for next school year.

Other concerns raised by the senators were whether teachers were being monitored to see if they were covering the mandated curriculum and whether international teachers had the resources to learn and teach about Virgin Islands and Caribbean history and culture.

In her introduction of the bill, Whitaker said, “Why do we want this bill? It is simple. Our children do not know their history. We are taught everyone’s history but our own, and it is very dismal in their memory or references. We need to learn from our mistakes to make better decisions for the future.”

Sens. Marvin Blyden, Novelle Francis, Frett-Gregory, Kenneth Gittens, Javan James, Janelle Sarauw, Kurt Vialet, Milton Potter, Carla Joseph, Whitaker, and Kurt Vialet voted to move the bill forward.

Also, getting a hearing at the Committee Monday was an act extending the eligibility for the V.I. Higher Education Scholarship Program to part-time students. (The program is commonly known as the free tuition program.)

On this bill, the testifier, Camille McKayle, vice-president for Student Affairs at the University of the Virgin Islands, advocated for the bill while several senators questioned that it might encourage full-time students to go part-time and then take many years to earn a degree.

Sen. Samuel Carrión introduced the bill. He said the bill was a way “to get financial aid to those who need it most.”

Vialet said he was concerned the financial aid would be “watering everything down,” and the Senate should be encouraging students to go full-time. Sarauw questioned whether a student taking one course or just three credit hours would be eligible for the free tuition.

Carrión said he understood Sarauw’s concern and would amend the bill to require a student to be taking at least six credit hours to qualify for the program. A full-time student must take at least 12 credit hours.

McKayle testified that the program was not using all the funding available to the program and that half a million dollars were going to be spent on it this semester.

Joseph said about $3 million had been appropriated annually for the program since it was initiated three years ago. This bill was also forwarded to the Rules and Judiciary Committee for further consideration.

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