This is the latest in an occasional series focusing on the issues, records and platforms of the state's candidates
Today's installment focuses on education. There he was, the governor of West Virginia, standing behind the lectern inside the Harts High School
gymnasium, doling out grant money for a new kitchen in the senior center, and he got to talking about that one-room schoolhouse in Tyler County.
Underwood always talks about the one-room schoolhouse. He has a model of the schoolhouse in the governor's reception room at the state Capitol. The one-room schoolhouse he attended as a boy. The one-room schoolhouse
where he worked as a janitor for three years. And then - and this is where everyone in the packed Lincoln County gymnasium started to listen - he started talking about technology, wiring chools, distance learning, classes transmitted by satellite and - what's
this? - about keeping Lincoln County's four high schools open, about aving Lincoln County schools from consolidation.
This from the Republican governor who never spoke against a single chool closing since he took office in January 1997.
"We need to look at putting together a network to provide services and eliminate the need for consolidation
," Underwood said. And like that, the people were on their feet. They were electrified. They were applauding, hooting and hollering. Before Underwood, every state and local education official had vowed to shut down the four high schools and build a new one. But the governor, he was on a roll now, he sensed it, and he was talking about using the Lincoln distance-learning project as a model for the rest of the state. The rest of the state. Say what? Underwood had just put the state's most contentious, most divisive education issue - consolidation
- back on the campaign table. "This is absolutely amazing," said Beth Spence, co-director of Challenge West Virginia, an organization that upports small schools.
"The ramifications could be unbelievable. It could change education policy. It could stop the freight train of closing down schools." - - - Congressman Bob Wise's camp was quick to respond to Underwood's proposal. They dismissed it as an 11th-hour campaign ploy, a cruel election ploy at that, one that would raise false hopes for Lincoln County parents and children. Everyone knows the schools are going to close. "After you do distance learning you're still going to have four crumbling structures," said Wise, the Democratic challenger. "He walked in and simply blew up that plan. It shows he's ignorant of the issue or just used bad judgment." Underwood hadn't talked about his proposal with state schools Superintendent David Stewart and Lincoln County Superintendent Bill Grizzell. Before they debated consolidation
, Wise and Underwood discussed chool safety hot lines and other initiatives, "Promise" and
"need-based" college scholarships, raising teacher salaries, raising tandards, raising "the bar." Underwood wants to put the Ten Commandments
up in schools and supports voluntary school
prayer. Wise does not. Neither candidate has come forward with an education plan, platform or position paper. But consolidation
, closing schools, will tug, wake and stir the West Virginia electorate. The state's education establishment has dug its heels into the notion that "bigger is better." With a bigger school
, you can offer more advanced courses, more technology, more foreign languages, more counselors and nurses. West Virginia's student population is shrinking - and fast. Young families are leaving the state in droves. Enrollment has declined faster than any state in the nation. Fewer students, fewer schools needed. End of tory.
But not everyone buys it. Research shows that disadvantaged kids do better in small schools. The bus rides are shorter. More students participate in extracurricular activities. The schools help to keep communities afloat. Before Underwood walked into that Harts High School
gymnasium, it seemed Wise had the small school
supporters on his side. It was something he said last year, something deep and personal that caught everyone's attention. Wise said he sometimes felt lost in high chool. There were too many kids in the school.
The comments came a few months after the Columbine tragedy when some elected officials, such as North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, started talking about small schools as a way to curb violence. Wise stated he didn't think a high school
should house more than 1,000 students, a middle school
no more than 800, an elementary chool no more than 500.
You won't hear West Virginia education officials rattle off those limits - though for the most part West Virginia schools are small by ational standards. The state's high schools, for instance, average 700 tudents. You won't find but a handful of "mega-schools" in the state.
But Wise had given the anti-consolidation
folks a glimmer of hope. "Bob is in no rush to consolidate schools," said Mike Plante, a Wise trategist. "He thinks it should be looked at on a case-by-case basis. He upports the community-based school concept."
- - - Bob Wise huddled with 70 Riverside High School
students in the chool library last week. There was a $3,000 check handed out by
AT&T. The company had invited him to chat with students about leadership. Wise asked for a show of hands: How many planned to leave West Virginia? The hands sprang up; he was surrounded by hands, a sea of hands. Everyone, it appeared, had raised a hand. This frustrates Wise. He says this is what the campaign is about: keeping West Virginia kids at home. Wise left the state himself after graduating from George Washington High School
in Charleston. He lived in New Orleans and North Carolina. He returned to West Virginia 10 years later. "West Virginia is changing," Wise said. "We need you on the ground floor to make that change." And then he made a pitch. "In West Virginia a person can move farther and faster," he said. "I've never seen a place where a person can move ahead as fast." Wise fielded questions from the students. Most wanted to know his position on student dress codes. (He supports them. Students oppose them.) Joey Connard, Riverside's student council president, asked about Wise's position on school
size. Riverside has 1,300 students. Some feel that's too many. Not Connard. He wanted the congressman's opinion. "How do you feel about big schools?" Connard asked. "Are you in favor of a big school
like Riverside?" "I happen to believe education needs to be small," Wise responded. "But that doesn't mean it cannot happen in a large school
. You have to make sure students don't feel isolated." Another student jumped up and said many Riverside students feel left out because they don't participate in extracurricular activities. "There is a need for all of us to be engaged with one another," Wise odded.
- - - Mountain Party gubernatorial candidate Denise Giardina and Libertarian Bob Myers also want to stop the outflow of students from West Virginia. And they believe education can play a role. First Giardina: Giardina was talking about consolidation
months before Underwood showed up in the Harts High gymnasium. Giardina supports small schools - no more than 350 students in an elementary school
. She thinks schoolchildren spend too much time on buses, not enough in band and chorus. She calls the state School
Building Authority, which allocates money for school
construction, the "School
Bullying Authority." She says the authority forces consolidation
on communities, using policies that favor "massive educational factories." She worries about the dozens of elementary schools across the state that may close in the next 10 years. "You take the heart and soul out of the community and you waste resources," said Giardina, a novelist. Giardina also supports a curriculum rooted in community. Educators call it "place-based learning" or "experiential learning." A social studies class interviews seniors about a town's hitory.
A science class tests the water in a local stream. An economics class organizes a meeting of local business leaders. "If you want to learn about plants," Giardina said, "you go out in the community and explore plants." Bob Myers, former president of the state Board of Education, also upports small schools.
is more of a public works project than an education project," Myers said. Myers wants to abolish the state Department of Education and School
Building Authority. He wants to "shatter the education monopoly" (West Virginia has one of the most centralized education systems in the nation) and establish independent school
districts across the state. In Lincoln County, for instance, he'd encourage Harts High School
residents to set up their own school
board, which, he asserts, the state constitution allows. "There are only two elements in our society we institutionalize," Myers aid. "One is the prisoners. The other is students."
- - - Bob Wise had just finished his clogging routine for Riverside students - "Anyone have a zither or banjo?" and Connard and Arpan Kohli talked about their efforts to unite their classmates. Many attended the former East Bank and DuPont high schools. They rattled off all the activities at the school
- civil rights club, Spanish club, foreign language club, and the "best football team in the state." Connard plays wide receiver. "But some people you can't help," Kohli said. "They just don't want to get involved." "We've got a great group," Connard said. "Everybody still loves everybody." And then they watched Wise, the AT&T folks and the television reporters squeeze out the library doors into a mist of cold rain. "You know, Governor Underwood came here last year," Kohli said. "He gave us some money, too." To contact staff writer Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 348-5194.