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Education to be top priority of Legislature’s interim sessions

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Education to be top priority of Legislature’s interim sessions
By Michael Erb, For The Intelligencer,The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register

CHARLESTON - West Virginia legislative leaders say education issues will be a top priority during the upcoming interim sessions.

Lawmakers plan to meet next month to set an interim meetings schedule for the summer and fall. Delegate Amanda Pasdon, R-Monongalia, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said two major issues - charter schools and a possible repeal of the state's Common Core education standards -will play a central role in those meetings. Both had pieces of legislation pass through committees during the 2015 session and both saw their bills die on the final day after House and Senate lawmakers failed to reach agreement.

"I think charter schools still has a good chance," Pasdon said. "We look at it as now having nine months to refine that legislation. We want to be sure we are covering all angles of the law."   

Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, said officials need more answers before moving forward with a repeal.

"If we repeal Common Core, that will be the fourth set of standards we've had in 12 years," he said. "We need to have a little bit more than just a couple of days in committee to figure that out, because it is a big deal for this state, its students and parents."

Cole also pointed out the repeal carried with it an unclear price tag, with some education officials saying the move could cost upward of $128 million.

"You could argue someone was trying to make a point with that number, but what if it was half that cost? What if it was double?" Cole said. "Our budget is in a tough position right now. Either way that is money we don't have."

State Department of Education and Board of Education officials have promised to have a comprehensive review of the state's standards in the coming year.

Other areas of need, Pasdon said, include teacher pay and revamping the state's school aid formula.

"Our school aid formula is a very complicated formula," she said. "The way we fund education doesn't fit a lot of our smaller and growing counties."

Education officials have complained the per-pupil expenditures, which give school systems money based upon student populations, do not take into account increasing facility and utility costs. A school that loses student enrollment still costs as much to keep open, and energy costs have increased almost annually.

"We need to address some of the funding inequalities we are seeing," Pasdon said.

Cole said he believes the Legislature did not adequately address the state's education issues during the 2015 session.

"I don't think we did enough for education," he said. "Education will be a major focus in the coming months."

The interim session will give officials time to study the issues and to have experts review the state's options.

"At the beginning of the session I famously said 'the time for studies is over,' " Cole said. "I think what I was really trying to say is the time for studies with no action taken is over. But certainly, you have to study some things and make sure you are not making a big mistake."

While many of the top pieces of education legislation did not survive, both Cole and Pasdon said the 2015 session served an equally valuable purpose.

"One thing I will say, the Legislature sure has the attention of the Board of Education," Cole said. "We depend on the state Board of Education and the Department of Education to come up with solutions. It's inexcusable the kids, by whatever measure you use, remain 47th in student achievement in the nation. There is no defense for that number."

"For a long time we've heard the cries of constituents that are struggling and challenged related to some of these education issues," Pasdon said. "The state board has kind of continued the course. We hope the state board and Department of Education will now take a closer look at those concerns."