By Lawrence Messina
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s proposed overhaul of West Virginia’s education system is mostly short-sighted and contradictory, groups representing teachers and other school employees argued to lawmakers Tuesday.
Judy Hale, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, told the Senate Education Committee that the bill would require additional training for teaching reading, yet also offers certification to would-be teachers without relevant college degrees.
Hale also pointed out that the measure seeks to ensure students receive at least 180 days of instruction, as mandated by state law, but then counts toward that time any days spent attending athletic tournaments or playoffs.
“I’m having a hard time believing that the drafters of the bill are really serious about instructional days,” Hale said.
Hale also questioned what evidence supported Tomblin’s proposed rewrite of teacher hiring and transfer rules. Among other changes, the bill would remove language requiring a written explanation upon request when the candidate with the most seniority doesn’t get the job. It also scales back seniority’s role when job reductions prompt teacher transfers within a school or a county, a process known as bumping, and allows counties to repost job openings to attract additional applicants.
Several county superintendents have spoken in favor of those provisions. But Hale said that before James Phares became state schools superintendent earlier this year, Phares told lawmakers in October that hiring practices allowed for the hiring of the most qualified teachers, and “it was a ‘myth’ that seniority was the determining factor when filling vacancies.”
“There is absolutely no evidence or data to show that the current hiring practice is not working,” Hale said.
Hale also challenged allegations that teachers with seniority have successfully appealed being passed over for jobs through the state employee grievance process. A review of rulings from the past three years revealed just three cases filed by such teacher-applicants — and each of them lost, Hale alleged.
Citing West Virginia’s low rankings for student achievement, Hale noted that the state also rates poorly for health. Yet no one is alleging that that’s because West Virginia has bad hospitals or doctors, Hale said.
But while condemning much of the bill, Hale praised several provisions. Those would expand pre-kindergarten classes for 4-year-olds statewide, seek to make sure that all third-graders are reading at grade level, offer teachers in critical need subjects and communities with college loans, cover the $1,150 renewal fee for nationally certified teachers, and beef up vocational-technical training.
Dale Lee of the West Virginia Education Association raised similar concerns when he addressed the committee Tuesday. His group represents teachers and administrators, while Hale’s is also allied with the association for school service workers. Hale told the committee that she spoke for more than 16,500 non-management education employees.
These groups outlined their objections as a coalition of business and industry groups stepped up their support of the bill. One member, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, announced it had launched billboard and radio ads to urge passage of Tomblin’s measure with newspaper ads to follow.
The coalition also includes an array of trade associations representing contractors, coal operators, hospitals, insurers, TV stations and car and truck dealers. Such individual employers as Appalachian Power, Frontier Communications and the Jackson Kelly law firm have also signed on. Officials with several of these groups spoke in favor of the bill at Tuesday’s meeting.
Tomblin told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he and his top aides have met with Hale’s and Lee’s groups to resolve differences over the bill. Those meetings also aim to help the Senate Education committee craft amendments that preserve its core goals while removing unintended consequences. Those include language that Hale had alleged would wipe out paid holidays. That was not his intent, nor was he seeking to allow classes on Saturday as some have alleged by invoking bill language, Tomblin told AP.
“There will be paid holidays. No one will be losing any of those benefits,” the Democratic governor said. “What we’re trying to do is give flexibility to the local boards and schools (regarding the school calendar).”
Tomblin also said he planned to issue executive orders in the coming weeks to further his push toward expanded early childhood education and career and technical training in middle schools.