The Times West Virginian

March 24, 2013

West Virginia education reform must not stop with passage of one bill

Times West Virginian

— Education has been at the very top of the agenda since the start of the ongoing legislative session in Charleston.

Now, legislation that will, among other things, change how West Virginia county school districts hire teachers, free up more days on their calendars to bolster student instruction and require full-week schooling for 4-year-olds, has been sent to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for his signature.

The status quo was simply not going to prevail this session.

Education dominated Tomblin’s State of the State address in the wake of 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.

The report criticized regulation of West Virginia’s education system, its administrative overhead and laws that don’t allow for innovation.

Change was virtually inevitable.

The House of Delegates passed the legislation (SB359) Friday by a 95-2 vote after proposed amendments offered the previous day were voted down. The Senate had earlier unanimously passed the bill.

The legislation requires the Department of Education to trim non-classroom personnel costs by 5 percent in each of the next two budget years.

Tomblin said the “landmark legislation” will make things better for students and educators and ensure “all public education will be delivered locally, not by Charleston.”

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the bill. Teachers’ unions were against the original version, which de-emphasized the role seniority would play in teacher hires and would have allowed Teach for America — a program that places new college graduates at struggling schools — to operate in West Virginia.

The bill was revised, removing Teach for America and giving seniority weight in hiring decisions.

Under the new legislation, teachers would be hired using 11 factors. Seniority is one of nine that would get equal weight. The other two factors — principal and faculty senate recommendations — would receive double weight.

The bill expands the yearly school calendar from 43 weeks to 48 weeks, giving schools more flexibility to make up snow days and lost classroom time and helping to ensure students receive the 180 days of instruction mandated by the state.

It also advances several key goals in Tomblin’s drive to improve West Virginia’s low-ranking student achievement scores. One aims to ensure that high school students finish their junior year ready for college or career training, with remedial courses offered for those who aren’t ready while they are seniors.

No one expects the bill to be perfect. Republican Delegates Marty Gearheart of Mercer County and Larry Kump of Berkeley cast Friday’s no votes.

“I’m concerned about the state Board of Education still being too top-heavy and with too much authority over local schools,” Kump said.

House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, voted yes but said the bill doesn’t shift enough power from the Department of Education to local schools.

“I don’t think it’s bold; I don’t think it’s comprehensive,” Armstead said. “But we can be bold and comprehensive if we continue to work on this issue. We still have a lot of work to do on education.”

Indeed, that’s the belief we hope prevails on both sides of the aisle. More knowledge will obviously become available after the legislation is implemented, and reform is not a one-year process.

“No bill does everything we need to do, but this bill does a whole lot of good things,” said Delegate Josh Stowers, a Lincoln Democrat who’s also an assistant principal. “This is going to be good for kids. ... We did something good this year.”

We agree and understand there will be more work to be done in future legislative sessions if the education system is going to be the best it can be — one that West Virginia students deserve.