By Brad McElhinny, WV MetroNews
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A new report resulting from education forums around the state may serve as a launching point for an upcoming legislative special session.
“I think it needs to be the foundation of a special session on education,” state Superintendent Steve Paine said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
The report, called “West Virginia’s Voice,” was released today by the state Department of Education. It makes a range of recommendations resulting from forums that took place all around West Virginia.
“The lead is, there are some items that have almost unanimous support,” Paine said.
While legislative debate over changes to the education system has often been about the flashpoint topics of charter schools and education savings account, those are addressed in the report but not among the key findings.
The key findings do address the topic of flexibility in West Virginia’s public schools, saying there should be more, especially when schools are already demonstrating success.
But the topline findings place more emphasis on dealing with the social and wellness challenges in West Virginia’s schools, in particular outgrowths of the opioid crisis.
“It is apparent more needs to be done to address the consequences of poverty and the opioid crisis on West Virginia’s children, the report states.
“Public schools carry much of the burden created by abuse, neglect and household dysfunction.”
The report concludes more support is needed — ranging from increased personnel and mental health services, to support for students and faculty who are affected by “the toxic stress they encounter daily.”
While not embracing charter schools and education savings accounts, the report discusses the need for more flexibility.
“Policy makers must work to ensure counties and schools are aware of existing flexibility while seeking to expand additional freedoms for innovation to occur,” the report states.
“Schools that demonstrate a pattern of high performance should be rewarded with additional flexibility from certain rules, regulations and policies to enable continuous success.”
The report also suggests a supplement to strengthen teachers’ skills in shortage areas, particularly math.
The report recommends that existing Innovation Zones be broadened, making it easier to qualify in the first place and to obtain flexibility.
“Let’s open it up,” Paine said on “Talkline.”
While sometimes in the same conversation as charter schools, these are different.
Charter schools begin exempt from many regulations in exchange for the possibility that the charter could be lost without meeting standards. Innovation Zones at existing public schools make requests to be exempt from regulations.
On charter schools, the report notes that the entire topic “was divisive and passionate.”
If the Legislature considers charter schools, the report recommends that it do so under limited circumstances: “It is suggested they be limited in number and subject to certain statutory protections.”
Further recommendations include placing oversight with the state Board of Education and local boards of education. Another is prohibiting for-profit charter schoolsandmanagementcompanies.
The report does not recommend education savings accounts at all.
Those would set aside taxpayer dollars for families who want a student to move from public school to forms of private education, including homeschooling or religious schools.
The recommendation: “Do not implement ESAS due to public concerns over fraud, lack of accountability and concentrations of benefits to higher income families.”
Paine’s comment on “Talkline:” “The ESA’s for a variety of reasons are a non-starter.”
The report also gets into teacher pay, citing a rank of 49th nationally.
Among the top priorities listed in the report is “provide a pay raise to all school employees.”
Gov. Jim Justice, surrounded by Republican senators last fall, proposed across-the-board pay raises for West Virginia educators.
That was a flat rate of $2,120 a year for professional personnel and $115 a month for service personnel such as custodians, bus drivers and cooks.
But during the regular legislative session, the pay issue became entwined with other proposed changes to the education system.
One big bill reflecting a spectrum of changes wound up being tabled in the House of Delegates, and a standalone pay raise bill didn’t make it through the Senate.
That all led to the special session, which is anticipated to resume in two weeks.
The forums that took place this spring included 1,630 attendees. About 40 percent of those identified as parents and community members, the report stated.
There were 17,010 responses to online surveys.
“We wanted to hear from the people,” Paine said. “What kind of education system do you want?”
About 90 legislators attended the forums. There are 134 elected leaders in the Legislature.
The report concludes that many of the recommendations may be considered by the Legislature, but some also may be carried out by the state Board of Education or by local school boards.