The West Virginia Board of Education doesn’t get much attention, but its members are some of the most influential people in state government.

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The West Virginia Board of Education doesn’t get much attention, but its members are some of the most influential people in state government.

The West Virginia Board of Education drew national criticism in December after members voted to adopt new science education standards that intentionally cast doubt on human-influenced global climate change. The Charleston Gazette¬ broke the news, detailing how board member Wade Linger—an admitted climate change skeptic—requested the original draft of standards be changed to match his views. News outlets nationwide picked up the story, leading to an outcry from national and local education groups, who chided the board for ignoring the wealth of scientific evidence supporting global warming.

Board members eventually bowed to public pressure and removed Linger’s requested changes. But they didn’t have to. Although changing the standards was controversial, the move was well within the state board’s prescribed powers. The board has influence over nearly every aspect of West Virginia’s education system, from the 249-employee state Department of Education all the way down to classrooms of our 55 county school systems.

“The board is the chief (education) policy maker for the state. Whatever policy passes has the effect of law, unless the Legislature changes it,” says Lowell Johnson, who served on the board from 2004 until 2012. “You have to abide by the law, but there are so many policy-making decisions that are not in law. That’s what the state board does. It has that authority.” The board is responsible for setting education standards for the state, as well as teacher training standards. It sets policies on everything from school nutrition to standardized testing and oversees state juvenile detention centers and the West Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind. Members are charged with managing a $2 billion yearly budget, along with nearly a half-billion in federal education dollars. The state board also is in charge of hiring—and sometimes firing—the state superintendent.

When these top-down policy decisions aren’t enough, the board also can take a more direct approach. Through its Office of Education Performance Audits, members regularly review the academic and financial well-being of county school districts. “They basically control the school systems. They’re the ones that determine whether school systems are adequate or inadequate,” Johnson says. When a district is found lacking, the board has authority to seize control of the school system, installing its own administrators and rendering the county board of education powerless.

Former state board members say they had little idea before taking the job how much influence they would possess. Priscilla Haden made a career as a teacher and school counselor before serving on the Kanawha County Board of Education. But despite her decades of experience, she still did not know what to expect when Governor Bob Wise appointed her to the West Virginia Board of Education in 2003. “I don’t think anybody has any understanding of what the state board (does), quite frankly,” she says. “I didn’t realize the long reaching (nature) of the policies. I thought it was all student achievement, but we worked with so many other areas.”

Governor Joe Manchin appointed Jenny Phillips to the board in 2005, but she resigned with Haden in 2012 to protest the board’s firing of state Superintendent Jorea Marple. Phillips says she was amazed at the amount of work that goes into the position. “It was close to a full-time job. You spend a lot of time reading and getting prepared for meetings,” she says.

Johnson says he fully recognized the importance of the state Board of Education when Wise appointed him to the job in 2004. Johnson served as president of the West Virginia Education Association teacher’s union in the 1980s. Realizing how many important decisions occurred at state board meetings, he began sending staffers to each one. Long after his departure, a union employee still is present every time the board meets.

So how does one wind up on such a powerful, if little noticed, government body? There’s not much to it, besides gaining the favor of a sitting governor. Members serve nine-year terms, with one term expiring each year. The governor gets to decide who replaces that outgoing member. It is up to the state Senate to approve these appointments, but lawmakers seldom put up a fight.

The governor and legislators’ authority over the board mostly ends with this selection process. Johnson says it is not uncommon for governors to try to pressure board members to support certain policies—but board members do not have to listen. “They don’t have to pay that much attention to what the governor says.” The state constitution is structured to give the state board a large amount of autonomy, on the same level as the secretary of state, attorney general, and other constitutional officers. The only difference is, members are not selected by the voting public.

There have been numerous attempts over the years to change this structure. In 1989, Governor Gaston Caperton, a Democrat, tried to bring the Board of Education under the control of the executive branch using a constitutional amendment. Voters rejected the proposal in a special election, however, with nearly 90 percent voting against the amendment.

Governor Joe Manchin, another Democrat, briefly discussed a constitutional amendment in 2010 to shorten board members’ terms from nine to four years, although the idea did not gain traction among lawmakers. Three years later Democrat state Senator John Unger tried to establish nonpartisan elections for state Board of Education seats. Unger’s proposed constitutional amendment did not generate any momentum in the Legislature, either, and never made it to the polls.

This year state Senator Donna Boley, the new Republican vice-chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, resurrected Unger’s idea with a nearly identical proposed constitutional amendment. Boley says the Legislature and court system have granted the state board so much power they have become a “fourth branch of government.” The veteran lawmaker has served for years on the Legislative Oversight Committee on Education Achievement,but Boley says committee members aren’t given enough time or information to thoroughly study the issues and make good decisions. “We just rubber-stamp whatever the board gives us,” she says. Making the board an elected body, Boley believes, would allow the voting public to hold members accountable for their decisions. “I feel this Board of Education is just trying to get more and more control of education,” she says. “They’re out of control.”

It appeared at press time that her amendment would not pass this session, but the issue is sure to come up again. The idea has its supporters, including the conservative West Virginia Farm Bureau—which drafted Boley’s amendment—and the West Virginia School Board Association.

Association President Jim Crawford, who also is a member of the Kanawha County Board of Education, says holding nonpartisan elections for state board members makes sense. After all, he points out, that is how counties pick their school board members. “Every four years a board member has to go to the public and ask to be reelected. If you’re not doing the job, they’re not going to reelect you,” he says. “We’re all held accountable but the state board members are not held accountable for what they do.”

Plenty of people, of course, believe the state board is fine just the way it is. State Board President Gayle Manchin—who was appointed to the board by her husband in 2006—is a member of that camp. In addition to serving as West Virginia’s school board president, Manchin also is the former president of the National Association of State Boards of Education. That position allows her to work with boards across the country and observe how they operate.

According to the association, 36 state school boards in the United States are appointed, while seven are elected. Four states employ a blended model, where some members are elected and others are appointed. Three states do not have state boards at all. Manchin says she recognizes there are benefits and disadvantages to each model, but electing board members has its problems. She says accepting money from campaign donors sometimes comes with baggage. “You have people who are elected to office who are accused of being bought off by special interest groups. So what would be different about elected state board members?”

She has noticed something else about state school boards. No matter which model a state employs, there are people who want to try something different. “States that have elected (boards) look and say, ‘I think it would be better if we were appointed,’” she says. “The irony is that whatever a state is doing they always look at another state and think, boy, it would be better if we did it that way.”