By Lawrence Messina
Legislators aren’t done trying to improve West Virginia’s public schools this session following the passage of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s wide-ranging proposal.
The House Education Committee has crafted and advanced several follow-up measures within the past week. The Senate, meanwhile, has passed bills proposing free breakfast and lunch for all K-12 students and requiring administrators to spend three days each year as substitute teachers.
The school meals bill would seek grants and donations for funding, as compared to more costly — and unsuccessful — House legislation that focused on overall student health and nutrition, said House Education Chairwoman Mary Poling, whose committee will review both Senate measures. The other item should help curb substitute teacher costs while spurring policy improvements, the Barbour County Democrat said Monday.
“It gets those individuals who are isolated in central offices out into the schools to find out where the real problems might exist,” said Poling, a retired educator. “What I like about it is it’s getting those individuals back in the classrooms where education actually takes place.”
Two of the proposals drafted by Poling’s committee passed Monday to the Senate by nearly unanimous margins. One aims to reduce administrative cost and overhead in the state’s eight Regional Education Service Agencies. It allows county school board members and superintendents within each RESA to meet every other year and develop more ways to share services.
Monday’s other bill would exempt Monroe and Nicholas counties from state law requiring school attendance. Each is launching programs targeting students at risk of dropping out, Poling said. Monroe would increase the age at which students and quit school from 17 to 18. Nicholas would allow students to erase up to two unexcused absences each semester if they attend school on Saturday.
Both counties are taking part in the innovation zone program, which permits limited flexibility from state school policies. A recent audit of West Virginia’s education system, which prompted both Tomblin’s legislation and the overall reform push, found it was uniquely hobbled by rigid rules and a top-heavy bureaucracy when compared to other states.
That audit inspired another House Education-drafted measure, sent unanimously to the Senate on Thursday. This bill tackles seven areas where the wide-ranging study recommended improvements. Those include stepped-up career and technical training, a more thorough effort to link coursework to state workforce needs, and greater power-shifting to county districts and schools. The bills also embraces the audit’s call for closer tracking of student performance — testing shows West Virginia school children lagging behind most of their peers — and would require the state board of education to announce how it will return control in those counties where it took over schools five or more years ago.
A House-Senate oversight committee would regularly press the state board and its department for signs of progress in these seven areas, Poling said of the bill. She credited the special panel formed by House Speaker Rick Thompson, which held public hearings as part of its work, for much of that bill’s provisions.
“Many of them are not new issues, but the audit helped bring them to the forefront,” Poling said.
An additional House Education bill, up for a Wednesday vote, aims to improve educator development at the local level and free up more state dollars so schools can buy better digital-age learning tools.
“There’s so much more demand for technology that’s not being met,” Poling said. “It will sort of force the districts to direct more funding toward modern-day delivery of education and instruction.”
As amended by lawmakers, Tomblin’s education bill requires Department of Education personnel spending cuts in each of the next two budget years. It also offers county school systems more flexibility when it comes to setting annual school calendars and hiring and transferring teachers. Other provisions offer to help teachers with student loans and renew their national certification. The bill also aids Tomblin’s goals of ensuring that all third-graders end that year reading at grade level and that all high school students are ready for college or career training by the time they’re seniors.