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Finally, some change in public school law

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin made it clear in his State of the State address that public education is THE top priority this legislative session.

Tomblin cut back on the laundry list approach to accomplishments and challenges that normally makeup the State of the State and instead used five of the 13 pages of the speech to talk about education reform.

It's difficult to get an exact read on how far his reform plan reaches. We won't see all the specifics until the bill is ready in about a week, but Tomblin did outline some of the key elements.

* Increased accountability for schools, teachers and principals for outcomes.

* Revising hiring rules that make it easier to hire the most qualified teacher rather than simply the person with the most seniority.

* Adopting alternative qualification programs to help fill critical need positions in science, math and foreign languages.

* Flexibility in school scheduling to ensure that students actually get 180 days of instruction.

* Shifting more decision-making authority from Charleston back to local school boards.

* Renewing the emphasis on reading by guaranteeing that new elementary school teachers are specially trained in the discipline.

* Enrolling all 4-year-olds in a full-day preschool.

And Tomblin plans to accomplish these goals by shifting money within the education budget, not with new spending or tax increases.

This is a defining moment for public education in West Virginia.

Our low standardized test scores and high dropout rate show we're falling behind. School administrators are frustrated by red tape. Teachers, the most important variable in the education equation, are relegated to the end of the decision-making process.

The governor, while detailing several of our education shortcomings last night, repeated the line, "This is not acceptable."

And he's right.

Last year's comprehensive audit found we have one of the most inefficient school systems in the country. The state Board of Education has embraced the audit and recommended reforms based on it.

And now in the State of the State - the most high-profile setting any politician has in West Virginia - the governor has pledged to break up the tired old ways of public education, while reminding policy makers: "It is not about the adults. It is about the kids."

Frankly, I doubt the governor has gone far enough.

For example, he's apparently going to pass on merit pay. Rewarding teachers based on performance makes sense, but perhaps the governor thought that was one battle he didn't want to have with the teacher unions.

As for the unions, they need to realize that a convergence of forces has created a wave of momentum for change. The governor and key lawmakers appear to be onboard.

Like it or not, this is happening.

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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