By Lawrence Messina
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, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Wednesday in his State of the State address.
The Democrat also vowed to pursue a recent study’s recommendations for easing inmate crowding, predicting $116 million in freed-up funding for public safety over the next six years.
“What we learned was simple: substance abuse is a huge part of prison overcrowding, and the high re-offending rate intensifies the problem,” Tomblin told the Legislature and other state officials in a packed House of Delegates chamber.
Tomblin said he’ll also propose greater powers for the highways commissioner to partner with private companies on road projects.
He also wants lawmakers to create a public nonprofit to oversee redeveloping former industrial “brownfields” sites, and loosen a law he said threatens employers if they don’t pay departing workers within 72 hours.
Seeking business tax cuts and targeting state regulations and the court system, Republicans lawmakers found job-creating proposals “glaringly missing” from the speech, said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead.
“We have 60,000 of our fellow West Virginians who aren’t working, and I didn’t really hear any proposals that I think will put people back to work,” said Armstead, R-Kanawha.
While touting signs of a stable financial picture, Tomblin outlined a lean spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1. It includes $4.45 billion from general tax and lottery revenues, a nearly $129 million drop from the current budget. It reflects cuts previously called for by Tomblin, which total around $75 million.
The proposed budget avoids tax hikes, layoffs, or tapping emergency reserves, he said. It keeps intact funding for the PROMISE college scholarship, public school funding, and once-threatened day care subsidies for low-income parents. Medicaid spending, meanwhile, will increase $142 million to keep pace with costs.
A coalfields native, Tomblin re-affirmed his support for mining. The industry has lost 5,000 state jobs within the last year, and state revenues have suffered as well.
“I believe in the production of coal, its value to our country, and I will continue to do everything that I can to fight the EPA and its misguided attempts to cripple this industry,” Tomblin said to a standing ovation.
Education dominated the 44-minute speech. Tomblin drew heavily from a much-discussed 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 bottom-of-the-barrel student performance rankings.
“Education in West Virginia must change, and that change begins now,” he vowed.
Tomblin declared as unacceptable the state’s 78 percent high school graduation rate, and National Assessment of Educational Progress rankings that show West Virginia below average in 21 of 24 categories.
For his third-grader reading goal, Tomblin proposed requiring preschool for 4-year-olds, is enlisting the state Board of Education to make sure all elementary school teachers have that specific training, and supports the nonprofit Benedum Foundation’s efforts in this area.
“If a child cannot read at grade level by the end of the 3rd 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.”
The school calendar proposal aims 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.
The education measures would also pay for the state’s nearly 700 qualifying teachers to renew their National Board Certification every 10 years, require updated programing at all vocational schools and harness technology to improve individual student learning through such efforts as the national Project 24 campaign led by former Gov. Bob Wise.
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. Such statements won praise from Judy Hale, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia.
“While it’s going to be a tough session, I’m really excited about it, because we need to concentrate on education,” said Hale, whose group isn’t giving up on seeking teacher pay raises.
The governor also called for other factors besides seniority to decide hiring choices. But while advocating community oversight of schools, Tomblin cited the 26 percent drop in the number of students over the past 30 years to say “that does not mean we can and should provide all the current administrative overhead to each of our 55 county school boards.”
That line was met with silence, but Tomblin received one of several standing ovations when he said “there is no greater force for educational achievement than a dedicated parent.”
President Dale Lee of the West Virginia Education Association, which advocates for teachers and principals, agreed afterward.
“Teachers across the state will tell you that parental involvement is the most important, that truancy has to be addressed, that we have to have a broader curriculum, not a test-driven curriculum that students need to be at grade level by grade three to ensure that they have the basics to continue on,” Lee said.
Tomblin also proposed updating state law overseeing pipeline safety, following the December rupture of a natural gas line in Sissonville that destroyed a section of Interstate 77 and torched four area homes. He called for fines of up to $200,000 per violation, per day. Another proposal aims to ensure that law enforcement can pull over and test drivers under the influence of drugs. The governor also launched FaceYourFutureWV.com, a website offering help to West Virginians who can’t pass a drug test needed for work.
Wednesday’s State of the State was Tomblin’s first since he won a full term in November. The session runs until April 13.