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Education drives Tomblin State of the State address

CHARLESTON, W.Va, - Education reform dominated Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's State of the State speech Wednesday night.

"Education in West Virginia must change," Tomblin told lawmakers from the floor of the House chamber at the state Capitol. "And that change begins now."

Dedicating nearly half of his roughly 50-minute speech to changes in the state's educational system, Tomblin rolled out a five-phase plan for reform. The plan focuses on finding the right teachers for the classroom, more flexibility for county school systems, improving reading skills in elementary school, increasing technology in the curriculum and ensuring students are prepared for life after high school.

Many of the recommendations were in step with an education efficiency audit released last year. Tomblin said he relied on the audit and input from educators in creating his proposals.

In general, legislators and education community members who attended the speech said they appreciated his focus on the topic.

House Minority Leader Tim Armstead said the speech lacked specifics but some aspects - more local control, changes in hiring practices - would be supported by the GOP.

State Superintendent Jim Phares was brimming with excitement moments after the speech.

"I thought it was refreshing. I've been listening to this thing for 15 years," said Phares, who was sitting on the House floor with the other members of the Board of Public Works.

"We talked about change, we talked about need, the emphasis on early education, the emphasis on career and technical education."

He was particularly glad to hear Tomblin talk about giving counties more flexibility in creating their own school calendars. It's part of a plan to move more control from the Department of Education to local school systems, something championed by the state Board of Education and other stakeholders.

Tomblin lauded the success some counties have found with a year-round, or balanced, school calendar, but made it clear he would not impose any specific system.

He is mandating 180 days of instruction, but it will be up to each county to decide when those 180 days are scheduled, Tomblin chief of staff Rob Alsop said.

There was more skepticism surrounding Tomblin's views on teacher hiring practices. The criteria used to hire teachers, specifically the weight put on seniority, can be a detriment, Tomblin said.

"Current hiring practices in our state do not guarantee the best teacher is the one actually selected for the job," Tomblin said. "In fact, in many cases, it prevents otherwise good teachers even from qualifying for the job."

Teachers unions have typically opposed changes to hiring practices. Dale Lee, head of the West Virginia Education Association, and Christine Campbell, president-elect of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said there is no proof the current system fails to provide qualified teachers.

Delegate Mary Poling, D-Barbour, is chairwoman of the House Education Committee. Her opinions on seniority mirror those of the teachers unions.

However, Poling said she would be open to some changes in hiring practices. She suggested the idea of including a committee with teachers, principals and superintendents in recommending whether a person is hired could have merit.

Campbell said Putnam County is already using a similar method in some hiring practices.

She was skeptical of Tomblin's proposal to ensure all students are reading at the appropriate level by the third grade. Tomblin said all new elementary school teachers will be "specially trained" in reading. Campbell liked the idea, but questioned how it would be accomplished.

Legislators and unions were more agreeable to Tomblin's proposal to increase access to career and technical programs for younger students. Most students who consider dropping out do so in middle school; he proposed bringing more career and technical programming into middle schools to keep those students engaged.

Revamping the state's vocational offerings is crucial to training all those students whose interests do not lie in college, he said. That means ensuring that every vocational school has at least one program that meets the "rigorous" requirements established by the Southern Regional Education Board.

Tomblin also said the state would pay for all nationally certified teachers to reapply for certification. The state pays for the initial application now, but no re-certification in the future. Lee and Campbell said that was a way to ensure quality certified teachers were in the classroom.

The state pays for teachers to seek and receive national certification. Tomblin wants the state Board of Education to pay for the re-certification every year, as a reward for success.

Campbell also liked Tomblin's proposal to expand preschool programs for 4-year-olds.

"Although our 4-year-old kindergarten program has high ratings, only 68 percent of eligible students attend," Tomblin said. "I will introduce legislation requiring ever county, within three years, to offer full-day 4-year-old preschool."

Campbell, who is from Pocahontas County, has two children. One went through a preschool program and one did not. The one who did was more prepared for school, she said.

Finding ways to increase the effective use of technology in the classroom could be vital to improving scores, Tomblin said. The state will "embrace opportunities" that successfully mesh technology with curriculum. He specifically mentioned Project 24, a program championed by former Gov. Bob Wise.

Wade Linger, Board of Education president, viewed the speech from the balcony seating. He said he and other board members appreciated the emphasis on education.

"I think he literally hit all the bases. And I think he did it in a way that we can get support from all the groups involved, including the Legislature," Linger said. "We're just anxious to get to work."

Legislators will start to introduce bills today. Any education reform measures will have to go through Poling's committee. Members of both parties have called the committee a hurdle to reform.

Poling challenged that idea Wednesday.  

"I find the input of teachers to be input from experts. Just like the input of the attorneys are the experts in judiciary, the bankers, such as the chair of finance and business people on finance are considered to be experts," Poling said, discussing other House committees.

"Why are the teachers disregarded as the experts on education? And the committee members aren't all teachers."

Delegate Suzette Raines, R-Kanawha, is new to the House this year and one of 11 Republicans on the committee. She thinks the members will be open to change in education, and encouraged others to look past political motives when they discuss legislation.

"I am optimistic that the people in that committee will realize what an urgent challenge we have before us," Raines said after Tomblin's speech. "Put party affiliations, memberships with outside organizations afterward. That is not why we are here. We are here because there is an urgent need to address the needs of students."

Last week Tomblin pledged to have all bills to the Legislature within 10 days of the start of session. Alsop said there would be 19 substantive bills, one budget bill and nine supplemental bills coming from the governor's office. He anticipated an education bill to be introduced early next week.

Contract writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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