The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce does a great job of representing the economic interests of its members. It can kill bills with a frown and win without even showing up. That’s been true with both Democratic and Republican majorities.
Of course, this is probably easier to do when one represents the power of organized money. However, those interests aren’t necessarily the same as those of ordinary West Virginians, especially working people, kids, families and those just trying to get by.
For example, the Chamber supported the repeal of a prevailing wage policy for building trade workers on state construction jobs, claiming it would save taxpayers money.
In fact, a new report suggests that repealing prevailing wage lowered wages for local workers, reduced the number of apprenticeships that open the way to middle-class careers and gave more contracts to out-of- state contractors. On-the-job injuries have gone up by 26 percent since the repeal.
Since 2007, the Chamber supported major business tax cuts on the grounds they’d help create jobs. All told, various state tax cuts and credits favoring business groups or the wealthiest West Virginians have reduced state revenues by $478 million per year. That’s more than enough to lift all West Virginia families above the poverty line. Or to provide free in-state tuition to our colleges and universities. Or fix PEIA. Or deal with students’ mental health issues. Or whatever.
Here’s the kicker: we have fewer jobs now than we did in 2007. And West Virginians are earning less in constant dollars. But some folks did pretty well.
For reasons like that, I suspect the interests of the Chamber might not be identical with those of the 270,000 or so students in the state’s public schools.
The Chamber recently released its report on education reform in West Virginia, which not surprisingly highlights the shortcomings of the school system, supports charter schools (which can function as basically unaccountable private schools paid for with public money) and education savings accounts.
It’s a good strategy. Undermining support for and the legitimacy of public institutions has opened doors more than once to profiting at public expense and eventual privatization.
The report is mostly about money and standardized tests. The intent seems to be to demonstrate that schools are failing despite generous funding.
One thing the report doesn’t do is analyze is the effect of poverty and inequality on educational performance, despite the fact that one in four West Virginia children live in poverty and that we all live in a time of runaway inequality.
(If I was them, I’d probably try to avoid that subject too; it helps avoid certain unpleasant conversations and conclusions.)
The word poverty occurs as a blip four times in the report with no in-depth discussion.
But, as Helen Ladd demonstrated in an article on the connection between poverty and education in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, “Study after study has demonstrated that children from disadvantaged households perform less well in school on average than those from more advantaged households.”
We don’t have to look far to see how poverty can impact standardized measures of educational success. Sean O’Leary of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy recently pointed out the contrasts between George Washington and Riverside high schools in Kanawha County.
GW’s math, reading and science proficiency rates “are 30, 23, and 36 percentage points higher respectively, than Riverside High School’s scores. So what is the difference between the two schools? Only 20 percent of George Washington’s students are eligible for free/reduced lunches, compared to nearly 40 percent for Riverside. Riverside has nearly twice as many low-income students as George Washington. Two schools in the same district with the same policies, and same funding source, with vastly different educational outcomes.
Given all that, how do you expect students in the fourth poorest state in the nation to compare with more affluent states?
Much of the discussion in the Chamber report revolves around numbers from the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), which is mentioned 24 times. NAEP data is sometimes referred to as “the nation’s report card.” But, as the Urban Institute argues, “comparing NAEP scores assumes that states serve the same students — and we know they don’t.”
The Urban Institute argues that a more accurate way to talk about NAEP performance is to “use adjusted NAEP scores that account for demographic differences across students in each state.” These adjusted scores allow for students to be compared with those in similar circumstances.
(A full list of those factors includes gender, race and ethnicity, eligibility for free or reduced lunch, English proficiency, special education, age, whether the student was given an accommodation on the NAEP exam, whether the student has various amenities in the home — computer, internet, own room, dishwasher and clothes dryer — the number of books in the home, the language spoken in the home, and the family structure.)
If you adjust for these factors that impact learning and compare our students with others in similar conditions, for example, West Virginia’s fourth-grade math scores rise from 37th to 11th.
Maybe something else is broken ...
There are powerful forces at work in West Virginia to hold public schools responsible for problems they didn’t create. But maybe, it might be more productive to address the real issues that are holding back West Virginia’s kids and communities — even if some people would rather avoid the issue.
A long time ago, Henry David Thoreau observed that “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”
Maybe it’s time to change that.