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.