While some opponents of comprehensive education reform cheered its defeat during the 2019 regular legislative session, students, parents and rank-and-file teachers have little reason to celebrate.
West Virginia’s education system remains mired in dysfunction, near the bottom of states in both teacher pay and student performance.
The rejected legislation would have given teachers and school support staff a much-needed pay raise. Disappointingly, unions deemed other provisions so “controversial” that they were willing to forgo money for their members.
It’s amazing how common sense becomes “controversial” in the heat of political rhetoric.
For example, West Virginia currently has a one-size-fits-all earnings scale that actually penalizes good teachers and the school boards who want to pay them more.
Jefferson County, where my district is located, forms part of the state’s eastern panhandle, close to Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. We know that qualified teachers, especially those who specialize in subjects like math and science, can easily drive across state lines and earn more for the same job.
But under current law, counties like Jefferson are hit with decreased state funding when they supplement teachers’ basic pay. The comprehensive education reform legislation rejected during the regular session would have ended that imbalance and provided $32 million in extra funding that could have been used to attract and retain teachers in hard-to-fill roles.
If that’s controversial, it shouldn’t be.
The bill also included an option for public charter schools. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have some form of charter school legislation. Charters have been lauded by Democratic leaders from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama. They are probably the most studied and talked-about educational innovation of the past two decades.
Because policy-makers recognize the promise of charter school innovation, there is significant federal money available for states with ambitious public charter options. Last year the federal Charter School Program allocated $400 million to states through competition-based grants designed to reward effective charter schools.
Americans across the country know that charters can work. With more than 7,000 charters serving 3.2 million students nationwide, they’ve seen them thrive in their communities.
But from the hysteria of the anti-charter rhetoric in West Virginia, it was as if we were proposing to build schools on the moon. Even a seven-charter pilot program was called a threat to public education.
Like all my colleagues in the Legislature, I support public education. I want our public schools to work for all of our students, not just those who live in well-off neighborhoods.
Every student, no matter where she or he comes from, deserves access to the highest quality education we can provide. We’re not achieving that now, and we won’t achieve it by limping down the same path we’re on.
The West Virginia Board of Education recently announced that two more Mercer County schools will be lost to consolidation. Our state was one of only two that lost population in the last decade. Educational stagnation and population decline are part of a vicious cycle.
We’re going to continue falling behind other states, we’re going to continue seeing our children struggle to compete and we’re going to continue to lose future generations unless we come to grips with this reality.
We could pay the highest salaries in the country, but until we give families real choices, we’ll continue falling behind.
A growing consensus of policymakers and parents around the country understands that educational options — like charter schools and education scholarship programs — are valuable parts of a successful educational system.
The provisions in the proposed legislation rejected during the regular session would have strengthened traditional public schools in addition to expanding options for those who aren’t being served by those schools. Contrary to union rhetoric, it’s not an either-or choice.
When the Legislature reconvenes in special session in the coming days to consider public education reform, it’s my hope that we can finally join the rest of the nation by empowering West Virginia parents, students and educators while at the same time, making additional needed investments in traditional public education — an outcome we can all celebrate.