State lawmakers pressing ahead on education

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislators aren't done trying to improve West Virginia's public schools following the passage of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's wide-ranging proposal, with the House Education Committee crafting and advancing several follow-up measures within the last week.Two of these proposals passed to the Senate by nearly unanimous margins Monday. One aims to reduce administrative cost and overhead in the state's eight Regional Education Service Agencies. It allows county school board members and superintendents within each RESA to meet every other year and develop more ways to share services.Monday's other bill would exempt Monroe and Nicholas counties from state law requiring school attendance. Each is launching programs targeting students at risk of dropping out, House Education Chairwoman Mary Poling said. Monroe would increase the age at which students can quit school from 17 to 18, the Barbour County Democrat said. Nicholas would allow students to erase up to two unexcused absences each semester if they attend school on Saturday.Both counties are taking part in the innovation zone program, which permits limited flexibility from state school policies. A recent audit of West Virginia's education system, which prompted both Tomblin's legislation and the overall reform push, found it was uniquely hobbled by rigid rules and a top-heavy bureaucracy when compared to other states.That audit spurred the House Education Committee to take up another measure last week, sent unanimously to the Senate on Thursday. This bill tackles seven areas where the wide-ranging study recommended improvements. Those include stepped-up career and technical training, a more thorough effort to link coursework to state workforce needs, and greater power-shifting to county districts and schools. The bill also embraces the audit's call for closer tracking of student performance -- testing shows West Virginia school children lagging behind most of their peers -- and would require the state Board of Education to announce how it will return control in those counties where it took over schools five or more years ago.
A House-Senate oversight committee would regularly press the state board and its department for signs of progress in these seven areas, Poling said of the bill. She credited the special panel formed by House Speaker Rick Thompson, which held public hearings as part of its work, for much of that bill's provisions."Many of them are not new issues, but the audit helped bring them to the forefront,'' Poling said.   
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