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The state Board of Education faces a decision

We are approaching a decisive moment in public education in West Virginia.

Shortly after the November election, the state Board of Education will provide its response to the comprehensive and controversial audit of the state's public education system that was released earlier this year.

The independent audit covered everything from how teachers are hired to how we get children to and from school to ways the state could save millions of dollars.

Notably, the audit found the school system is top heavy and structurally resistant to change.

"The system is detailed to the extreme in statutory language that results in an education system that has little flexibility to modify policy and operations without changes to the Code (state law)," the report said.

"We have encountered no other state that insulated its education system so much from gubernatorial - or voter - control."

Counting state and federal money, West Virginia spends about $3.5 billion a year on public education. Nearly half the general revenue budget goes to the schools, making West Virginia one of the top per capita education spenders in the country.

Yet West Virginia students rank below average nationally in most categories, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

How can we bring about change, or least begin to ask substantive questions about the way the state and the counties deliver the critical service of public education?

The state Constitution empowers the school board. Article 12, section two says: "The general supervision of free schools of the State shall be vested in the West Virginia Board of Education, which shall perform such duties as prescribed by law."

Over the years, the board, which has no staff of its own, has gradually ceded authority to the Legislature and the bureaucracy of the Department of Education.

It's illogical to expect the department to embrace an independent audit that, if followed, will lead to a significant shake-up.

No, this responsibility falls directly on the board, which must fulfill its obligation to act as a true board of directors.

The nine-member state Board of Education does include several reformers, members who take seriously the failures of the system and are willing to challenge the status quo. The recommendations in the audit are a good place to start.

However, tackling an entrenched bureaucracy is formidable.

If the board's response next month is filled with rejections of the audit's recommendations, plans to "study" some of the suggestions, and eyewash about how the school system is already "actively engaged" in reform, we'll know nothing is going to change.

But if the board's report ruffles feathers at nearly all levels of public education, we'll know the reformers on the board have the advantage and have taken a productive first step.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.



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