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W.Va. will reform public education after all

THE state Board of Education's firing of Superintendent Jorea Marple is an important signal:

Public education reformers are now in charge of the board, and they are not satisfied with the status quo.

West Virginia's school system is mired in top-heavy bureaucracy and student underachievement.

Students rank below the national average in 21 of 24 categories measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress, while the state ranks 8th in education spending relative to income.

A highly publicized independent audit released earlier this year pronounced West Virginia's education system as "one of the most highly regulated systems in the country - if not the most - with many details of school operations spelled out in code."

It's likely the audit was Marple's undoing.

Those dissatisfied with Marple believe she was more interested in protecting the existing condition of the Department of Education than taking seriously the recommendations of the audit.

State school superintendents are used to getting their way. The state board, which operates without a staff, often served as a rubber stamp for whatever the department wanted to do.

But the makeup of the board - and thus the thinking - has changed.

Board President Wade Linger is a strong-willed advocate for reform. He and Marple frequently butted heads behind the scenes as he tried to craft a response to the audit.

I suspect if Marple had been willing to embrace change, as other progressive school systems across the country have done, she would still have a job.

Marple had her supporters on the board. In fact, Jenny Phillips and Priscilla Haden resigned from the board in protest after Marple was fired.

Interestingly, that makes it easier for the reformers, since Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin can now appoint two more board members who are willing to tackle the monumental task of fixing the school system.

There will be some public hand-wringing over Marple's dismissal, which is predictable since state government rarely fires anyone.

In the private sector, top managers get fired all the time and usually a company is better off for it.

I suspect the top-heavy bureaucracy that Marple sought to protect will somehow muddle along. After all, the status quo has a strong survival instinct.

The real significance is that the state Board of Education is beginning to flex its long-atrophied muscles.

The next logical step is a meaningful response by the board to the audit that includes ways the state can provide a thorough and efficient school system, as required by the state Constitution.

That should come sooner rather than later.

And if Marple's firing is an indication, that blueprint for our public schools will have real substance, rather than the much-practiced Lake Wobegon fiction that typically comes out of the public education hierarchy.

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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