By Mannix Porterfield
Good thing for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin that his massive education reform package isn’t a test paper, graded by the heads of West Virginia’s two teachers unions.
If it were, the governor would see it returned with a huge, red letter “F” marked at the top.
An abstract of the 179-page document was read Tuesday before the Senate Education Committee, setting the stage for serious work in the days ahead.
In fact, Senate Education Chairman Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, indicated his panel would like to get the measure out by next Thursday, after two more meetings to pore over it with input from interested parties.
Tomblin’s proposal certainly wasn’t popular with the two teacher organizations.
“I think he gets an ‘F’ for this bill,” Judy Hale, the retiring president of the American Federation of Teachers, said afterward.
Ditto for Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, who, though finding some positive points, as did Hale, said, “At this point, I’d have to go with a failing grade.”
Hale and Lee applauded the provision for a 4-year-old pre-school program, although the latter had some reservations.
For instance, Lee pointed out, it allows the program to be attended less than five days weekly and short of a full day, based on “parental need.”
“I don’t know what ‘parental need’ means,” Lee said.
“Shouldn’t that be a decision for teachers and the schools? That tells me if someone could have a part-time job and just needs a babysitter a few hours a day, then, ‘I’m going to send my kid to the 4-year-old program for two days a week, for four hours a day and that’s my parental need.’ That’s not in the best interests of what’s there for that child.”
Hale faulted Tomblin’s bill for not addressing top-heaviness in education, albeit the recent audit called for exactly that.
“There is no indication in any place of the bill, except to increase bureaucracy at the Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA) in terms of program development. The plan for professional development is a recipe for disaster. The RESAs are not capable of providing quality professional development. These decisions should be made at the school level by the principal and teacher leaders.”
Hale said the proposal is flawed in another point — by calling for one faculty-senate day a year just before the start of a school term. And, the planning period would be trimmed to one half-hour, described in the bill as the minimum.
“So, the opportunity for input from the people at the classroom level, the opportunity for them to collaborate with each other, which all the research tells is very important to student achievement, has been taken out of the bill,” the AFT leader said.
Lee said no one can argue against the ideal of having children reading at grade level by the third grade, but asked how the bill would attain that goal.
“There are so many contradictions in the bill,” the WVEA president said.
“It wants to strengthen the education preparation program, so that teachers coming in are trained in reading and reinforces that for elementary teachers. Yet it allows in Teach for America for somebody without an education degree, maybe an interior designer, or whatever, and takes five weeks training and can be put in those same elementary positions. That doesn’t make sense to me.”
Lee also is at odds with the hiring practices, saying there is a false notion that the most qualified teachers aren’t on the job now.
“That plays on the misconception that seniority is the only factor in hiring,” he said.
“It’s not. It’s one of seven criteria. That’s a problem area (in the bill).”
Lee also isn’t pleased with the diminishing of faculty-senate days and likewise with the proposed extension of the school calendar so that classes could be held year-round to get in the required 180 days.
The WVEA leader said the governor’s bill is “poorly written” and fraught with contradictions, adding, “It’s bad.”
Hale detected another point of controversy — a provision that erases requirements for county school superintendents.
“You can be the board president’s brother who runs a hardware store and become the county school superintendent,” she said.
And the same lack of requirements would apply to the state superintendent as well, Hale said.
“I’m very disappointed with the governor’s bill for the most part,” she said.
“I think he missed a big opportunity to do some real education reforms that would help our students.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org