West Virginia state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine is, again, leaving the position, about three years after being hired to return.
His announcement comes at an uncertain time for West Virginia education.
During Paine’s current tenure, West Virginia students’ national test scores sunk. High school graduation rates are at historic highs, but they don’t match the low scores on state standardized tests, which students don’t have to pass to graduate.
Paine successfully pushed to reduce the state’s graduation requirements, though in recent years he twice backed down from proposals to lower social studies requirements specifically.
While he said charter schools wouldn’t be a “silver bullet” for the state’s education problems, he eventually supported them on a trial basis, as long as they weren’t completely online. His Department of Education’s proposed charter school regulations still aren’t settled and may be legally challenged.
He’s still developing an accountability system for public schools to replace one the state Board of Education and Legislature ended shortly after he returned as state superintendent.
And schools still haven’t been rebuilt since the June 2016 flood. The Nicholas County Board of Education sued Paine and others in 2017 to not have to rebuild flooded Richwood schools in that community.
While the county lost the suit, Paine, who also sat on the state School Building Authority, helped make a controversial deal that includes one consolidated school in Richwood and one near Summersville.
In a Wednesday morning news release, Paine announced his departure effective June 30 — or earlier if the state Board of Education finds a suitable replacement.
“After months of consideration and heartfelt discussion with my family, I have decided to retire my position as the State Superintendent of West Virginia.” Paine said, “It has been an honor and my privilege to serve this state, the Governor, and the students of West Virginia. Unfortunately, a member of my family is facing a health crisis and I want to be fully present for my family.”
“I have grown children, one grandchild who I adore, and hopes for more grandchildren in the future,” he said. “It is time for me to dedicate myself to spending time with my family.”
Paine didn’t provide the Gazette-Mail an interview, but he told MetroNews’ Hoppy Kercheval Wednesday that a family member’s “excruciating” pain has become unbearable within the past month and a half.
The superintendent also acknowledged that his parents died in the past year.
“It’s been quite a year,” Paine, 64, told Kercheval. “And, you know, it’s taken a toll on me too and my personal health.”
He said he didn’t regret leaving at this time, saying he’s helped bring stability to the school system.
Paine, who previously was state superintendent from mid-2005 through the end of 2010, was re-hired in March 2017 by a state Board of Education that had already greatly changed just three months into then-Democratic Gov. Jim Justice’s tenure.
Due to vacancies and resignations on the board, Justice was able to appoint a majority of the board members before the vote to hire Paine.
The board swiftly dumped the state’s nascent A-F grading system for entire schools that Earl Ray Tomblin had pushed when he was governor.
Justice then pushed a broad education bill in 2017. Among other things, it eliminated the state agency that visited and reviewed schools and school systems and banned the Smarter Balanced statewide standardized tests.
When Justice eventually reverted to the Republican Party, the GOP had finally taken over state government.
They pushed laws to legalize charter schools and private school vouchers and reduce the power of labor while not focusing on shoring up health insurance coverage for public employees or increasing teacher wages. The first two statewide public school worker strikes occurred in 2018 and 2019, over these and other issues.
Amid all this, the state Department of Education, under Paine’s leadership, developed a new system that’s supposed to hold schools and school systems accountable for student test scores and other measures, like attendance. It grades schools with multiple colors, instead of a single letter.
Some sort of accountability system is required to comply with a new federal law. While the federal government approved the state’s submission after rejecting certain parts, the state system is a work in progress.
Republican lawmakers have cited an improved relationship between themselves and the state school board since Paine returned as state superintendent.
But, last summer, after the board increased Paine’s $230,000 annual salary by another $4,000, Republican Senate President Mitch Carmichael called the increase “unwarranted” and “shocking.” Paine, whom several board members said didn’t ask for the raise, then declined it.
In October, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released its 2019 results.
Compared to 2017, the last time the national test was given, West Virginia had the country’s biggest average score drop in fourth-grade math. In eighth-grade math, the state saw more stagnation.
In fourth-grade reading, West Virginia returned to its low point in data going back to 1992. And in eighth-grade reading, it remained stuck at that low point
In presentations to lawmakers this year, Paine guaranteed that those scores will improve the next time the test is given.
“After a couple of years of instability quite frankly, stability is critical for our system right now,” Paine told lawmakers. “The 19 results are a direct reflection of what was going on here in ‘15, ‘16.”
Paine returned as state superintendent in 2017.
“We are working hard to do the right things to lay a foundation from which we build a quality education system,” he said at the time. “And I’m anxious, and I will guarantee that those results will go up in a couple of years, those NAEP results. I just feel that it will because we’re doing all the right things.”