Official expects major education changes
A Republican party leader in West Virginia is confident the slew of new delegates from his party set to enter the state House of Delegates this winter will shift the discussion on education reforms.
Officials from teachers unions and at least one state Democrat aren't convinced.
The GOP believes it secured 11 additional seats in the House, citing unofficial results from Tuesday's election. If those results hold true, Republicans will control 46 of 100 seats, the party's highest percentage in decades.
Voters chose those candidates based on a number of issues, not the least of which is education, said Delegate Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, House minority leader and member of the education committee.
"(People) don't want excuses, they don't want to see nibbling around the edges. They want to see some major changes to the education system. And we'll fight for that," Armstead said.
The impact of additional Republicans will trickle down to the committee level, he said.
Committees mirror the political breakdown of the entire House: with Republicans in 46 percent of seats overall, they'll occupy 46 percent of the education committee as well. This means the 25-person committee will have 11 or 12 Republicans, as compared to the current nine.
In the past, Democrats' large influence on the committee has shaped the direction of discussion, Armstead said. Democrats - and the unions that influence many of them - have prevented some measures from getting fair consideration, he said.
That will change this session.
"I think you will see perhaps less influence by the unions when you see a new makeup," Armstead said.
Leaders from West Virginia's two largest teachers unions said Wednesday they are willing to work with either party and downplayed the effect of political changes in the House.
"I don't think that an increase of Republicans in the House is going to make a difference in terms of being able to push our agenda," said Judy Hale, president of the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.
Hale said the bulk of the AFT agenda deals with items that are typically non-partisan: anti-bullying initiatives, school safety, improving attendance and graduation rates. She did admit there might be challenges with some items like pay for teachers, but she didn't think the problems would necessarily come as a result of more Republicans.
Armstead expects more GOP initiatives will get attention and gain traction with the help of conservative Democrats. For education, there are several measures in particular that will receive the most attention: addressing the education efficiency audit, ensuring students attend 180 days of instruction each year and increasing the importance of student success in teacher evaluations.
In January, Public Works LLC released an efficiency audit examining the state school system. Armstead said that would be a starting point for reform - he highlighted the report's references to decreasing the number of administrators at the Department of Education and the number of its regulations.
Hale foresees potential problems when it comes to the audit.
"I do think we will have some challenges. I do think based on the audit that different stakeholders will pick out the kinds of things they feel are important, and they will use the audit to ... push their agenda," she said.
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, agreed the audit would be a large part of everyone's education agenda. Like Hale, he said he thinks everyone wants the best for West Virginia students and he's happy to work with Republicans or anyone else to make that happen.
But he admitted the WVEA has a different stance on several issues Armstead mentioned. He doesn't think making student achievement the biggest factor in teacher evaluations is effective.
He's willing to negotiate if Republican are.
"If they want us to have an open mind on some of their concepts, I would want them to have the same open mind," Lee said.
Armstead said he and other Republicans don't have a problem working with unions. But the unions won't have the same capacity to squash discussion about items they don't favor, like charter schools, with the change in the House, he said.
The exact composition of the education committee won't be determined until the start of the legislative session. When it is decided, Democrats still will hold the advantage, said Delegate Brady Paxton, D-Putnam.
"I don't think the constitution's changed, has it, that majority wins?" said Paxton, current vice chairman of the education committee.
He didn't think the change would make a big difference in the committee.
"We have always tried to include unions or associations or any group that will have a direct access to our educational system. It would be crazy not to," Paxton said.
It's too early to predict how the change in the makeup of the House will affect education policy, said Liza Cordeiro, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. The department will look at any proposed policy changes closely, she said.