The Times West Virginian

Opinion

February 15, 2013

It’s essential that change in state education truly ‘begins now’

There will be plenty of disagreement in Charleston during the coming weeks of the legislative session.

That’s simply part of the political process.

At the same time, though, there is general agreement on at least one topic. West Virginia simply must do a better job when it comes to public education.

That’s why education dominated Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s State of the State address Wednesday evening. Tomblin drew from the state’s Education Efficiency Audit that contrasted hefty spending — the proposed budget will devote $2 billion to public schools, or 46 percent of general tax and lottery revenues — with poor student performance rankings.

Of course, there are plenty of success stories in West Virginia education, but the state needs more. As we have maintained for years, talk of a better economic situation in West Virginia is futile without sound education.

“Even with all the good things happening in our schools our student achievement is falling behind — and that is not acceptable,” Tomblin said.

“Education Week, in its annual survey, Quality Counts, gave us an F for student achievement, ranking us 49th nationally. That is not acceptable.

“The only true national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, ranks us below the national averages in 21 of 24 categories, and many of our scores have slipped lower over the past decade. That is not acceptable.

“Our graduation rate is only 78 percent, which means almost 1 in 4 high school students do not graduate on time. That is not acceptable.

“We have the highest percentage of young people ages 16 to 19 not engaged in school or the workforce. That is not acceptable.

“Education in West Virginia must change. And that change begins now.”

West Virginia must ensure that every child finishes third grade reading at that level, offer full-day preschool in all 55 counties within three years, and allow local control of school calendars, the governor said.

“If a child cannot read at grade level by the end of the third grade, bad things happen,” Tomblin said. “They will remain poor readers in high school, and they will be more likely to become high school dropouts.”

Tomblin wants to help counties meet the 180-day target for instruction by making better use of 12 days set aside for other purposes. Tomblin said state students only averaged 170 days of instructional time last year.

Tomblin stressed that all high school graduates must be prepared to work or move on to higher education.

“If our schools prepare students for college and a career, every graduate will be ready to go to work in West Virginia,” he said.

Citing the audit’s description of a top-heavy education bureaucracy and rigid rules, Tomblin wants teacher training shifted to counties, and principals and teachers given a greater voice in hiring.

“Current hiring practices in our state do not guarantee that the best teacher is the one actually selected for the job,” Tomblin said. “In fact, in many cases, it prevents otherwise good teachers from even qualifying for the job.”

He added, “Seniority always must be an important consideration, but seniority should not be the only decisive or controlling action of hiring practices.”

There is no one-size-fits-all philosophy when it comes to education. Schools must serve all — from those who need or desire to enter the workforce at an early age to those intent on pursuing advanced degrees.

“We’re finally starting to recognize that we lose some students ... when they really can make a very good living as a blue collar worker, going into trades,” said Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion. “We need those people.”

We trust good ideas will be exchanged and debated in good faith by West Virginia’s lawmakers.

“During this legislative session, let’s work together and take bold action so the next generation of West Virginians will have the passion, skills and knowledge to change our world,” Tomblin concluded.

Can there be a more worthy goal in Charleston this year?

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