Unions wary of Tomblin teacher certification plans

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By David Gutman, Charleston Gazette

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s announcement that he will introduce legislation to expand the hiring of teachers who do not have a background in teaching has the state’s teachers unions taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We must give local school systems better flexibility to train and hire subject-matter experts to fill long-term vacancies in critical subject areas,” Tomblin said during his State of the State address Wednesday night.

West Virginia already has seven methods of alternative teacher certification, said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association. He specifically praised Transition to Teaching, a federally funded program, which puts people with bachelor’s degrees in subjects other than education in the classroom while they do additional coursework and mentorship.

The 2008 grant for the program has expired.

“If he’s encouraging picking that up, then I think that’s a good thing,” Lee said. “If he’s talking about Teach for America, then I have a problem with that.”

Bills that would establish a Teach for America-type program, long opposed by the teachers unions, were among the first introduced in the Republican led-House and Senate as the legislative session began Wednesday

.“We definitely have been hearing alternative certification for a long time,” said Christine Campbell, West Virginia president of the American Federation of Teachers. “We want to maintain a quality educator in every classroom and we already have an alternative pathway.”

Tomblin’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, which will begin in July, contains no money for teacher pay raises (or for any other state employees).No surprise -- the teacher’s unions weren’t thrilled about that.

Both leaders mentioned that teacher salaries in West Virginia lag behind other states.

“It’s going to be a problem attracting teachers until we do something about the compensation,” Campbell said. “We’ve got to move forward with it.”

Last year, in passing $1,000 pay raises for teachers, the Legislature also set a goal of getting salaries for beginning teachers to at least $43,000 by 2019, a level more than $10,000 above where it is now.

Lee said he was disappointed that Tomblin’s budget did not address that stated goal.

“More and more of our classrooms are without a certified teacher and it’s hurting our kids,” Lee said, stressing the need for higher pay to attract better teachers.
A 2 percent pay raise for public school employees is scheduled for the 2016-17 budget.

Education was a smaller part of Tomblin’s speech than it has been the past two years.Lee praised the governor’s brief mention of science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM), but said he wished he had also mentioned the arts.

“The more diverse curriculum that we have to keep kids interested in school, the better we are,” he said.

Tomblin announced that he’s set aside money to review current STEM initiatives and to “refine and expand” those programs.

In praising this year’s teacher of the year, Gail Adams of Wheeling Park High School, Tomblin took a jab at traditional liberal arts subjects and touted technical education in their place.

“Instead of just reading modern literature and studying the classics,” Tomblin said, “Gail’s students are also learning about banking, financing a college education and finding a rewarding career.”

In the same vein, Tomblin touted the state’s community and technical colleges, which he said have created 133 programs specifically tailored toward workforce development and job training. Specifically, he mentioned the Appalachian Petroleum Program Training Center, a program in Fairmont that joins industry representatives with two community colleges to teach students the skills that industry desires.

Tomblin’s proposed budget includes a 2.5 percent cut to the state’s colleges and universities, a smaller cut than in previous years, but still at least the third straight year of funding cuts.

Amelia Courts, president of the Education Alliance, a business focused non-profit that advocates on education issues, stressed the link between schools and jobs.
“That’s the right message, the right focus,” Courts said. “The connection between education and jobs is a message that all West Virginians need to think about and is crucial to our future success.”