Governor, officials urge education reform
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, legislators and education officials agree: the time to reform West Virginia education is now.
The governor and leaders from both chambers of the Legislature all emphasized education Thursday during an annual legislative forum hosted by The Associated Press.
"As we go into this coming session, I know a great deal of time is going to be spent on education," Tomblin said during the event held on the Marshall University Graduate College in South Charleston.
The governor will give his State of the State speech to the Legislature on Wednesday, and the 60-day regular session will get under way.
Since the release of an education efficiency audit in January 2012, Tomblin has acknowledged the need for change several times.
On Thursday he hinted at some of the themes he could address early in the session - calendar flexibility; a shift of control to local school systems; reading proficiency; and general system effectiveness in preparing students for life after high school.
Right now state code mandates how county school systems set their calendars, explained state Superintendent Jim Phares, who spoke before Tomblin.
Without providing details about his own legislative priorities, Phares hinted that laws pertaining to school calendars are getting a serious look from his department.
Re-imagining the structure of education was one of the top priorities in the state Board of Education's response to the audit.
The year-round, or balanced, school calendar played a large role in the board's response. Phares and board members have said they don't want to mandate a new calendar, but Phares reiterated Thursday that it's an option that could work better for many counties.
Tomblin didn't specifically mention the year-round calendar, but he did say some responsibilities should shift from the state Department of Education to the county school systems.
That was a recommendation in the audit and has received a great deal of attention from legislators and educators alike.
Phares said the department is continually trying to decrease its bureaucracy, including eliminating some of its own policies. He plans to ask the Legislature to eliminate antiquated code.
Phares was joined by David Haney, the executive director of the West Virginia Education Association, and Terry Wallace, a senior fellow at West Liberty University, for a panel discussion on education.
Wallace, who has worked on all levels of education administration, said the problem with West Virginia's public school system isn't spending. Public education funding already accounts for roughly half of the state's $4 billion general revenue budget.
Wallace said increasing communication between teachers at all levels of education would lead to better-prepared students.
Effective spending is critical for making more efficient and productive public and higher education systems, said Delegate Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.
Armstead, who is minority leader of the House of Delegates, said nothing should be off the table when it comes to revising education.
Noting that higher education would not be exempt from the governor's anticipated 7.5 percent budget cut for the next fiscal year, Armstead said the resulting spending scrutiny should help combine the goals of higher education with those of elementary and secondary education.
"If you look at those more seamlessly, then you can prioritize what you're going to put that money toward," Armstead said.
It's going to take more communication from educators to gauge whether students are prepared for whatever they choose to do after high school, Tomblin said. He said that includes taking a closer look at career and technical education programs. Phares and the board have discussed the importance of promoting these programs as well.
Tomblin, Armstead and other legislators did not go into detail about proposed legislation aimed at reforms. But panel members discussed other audit recommendations that have received attention, including teacher preparation and alternative certification.
All of the panelists said West Virginia is producing enough high-quality teachers, but they disagreed about how to staff classrooms with the most qualified teachers. Wallace thinks the state needs to be more open to alternative certification programs, like Troops to Teachers or Teach For America.
Teachers unions typically oppose changes to certification; Haney said there are already seven routes to alternative certification in the state and increasing teacher salaries is the real key to retaining and recruiting high-quality instructors. The governor already has said pay raises for public employees are unlikely this year.
Phares said he needed to learn more about alternative certification programs but agreed the state needed to find a way to make it easier to keep high-quality teachers in the state.
During the board's regular meeting next Wednesday, it is scheduled to discuss its "call to action" - the items Phares and the board believe are key to education reform.
Tomblin intends to propose an education reform package within the first 10 days of the legislative session.