By Mannix Porterfield
In advance of legislative action on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s ambitious education package, steps already are in progress to trim the “top heavy” state Department of Education, lawmakers were assured Thursday.
On the second leg of what promises to be an exhaustive look into the governor’s bill, freshman Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, wondered aloud if it makes any move to get some weight off the top of the education bureaucracy.
“What I think everybody desires is delivering a better product, a better end product out there,” Cole said.
“When our state is identified as being one of the most top-heavy regulated in the whole country and we’re virtually in last place, there is some connection that the money is being spent in the wrong place, or in the wrong way,” Cole told state board President Wade Linger.
Linger said the recent audit that Tomblin sought says the heavy regulations lie in the state code, not within the Department of Education.
Tomblin’s bill seeks to pull much of the code out and leave it to policy.
“At the state board level, we’re developing policies now to push that on down to the local level,” he told Cole.
“One area embarked on is reallocating resources out of Building Six and shoving them to RESAs, which puts them into districts.”
A second prong is to shift some resources into the Office of Educational Performance Audit (an outgrowth of the landmark Recht decision that reviews schools through an audit process), he said.
“First, we need to go through the process and see how much reform there is going to be,” Linger said.
Since attention began to be focused on reforms, he told Cole, the board has left 25 positions vacant through attrition without any dismissals.
Linger said another section of the 179-page bill seeks accountability so the attention isn’t given merely to failing schools.
“We think all schools deserve the same attention,” he said.
“You could be falling, but not down to the failing point. The way things work now, we pretty much ignore it until you actually start failing.”
Hallie Mason, the governor’s policy director, sought to clarify some “misconceptions” that have surfaced since the bill was introduced in this session.
One is that the measure harms teachers. Already, the bill has come under fire from both the West Virginia Education Association and the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. Leaders of both likely will address the Senate Education Committee when the marathon study of the bill resumes Tuesday.
“We believe it empowers them, and does not hurt them,” Mason said of the impact on teachers.
Moreover, the proposal allows teachers a voice in the hiring process and doesn’t subtract the faculty senate days, allowing such meetings for an unlimited block of time during non-instructional days, of which there are a dozen, Mason said.
Nor does the bill remove any holidays for teachers, but maintains them, she said, adding that they are to be allotted two more for a total of seven if schools switch to a balanced calendar.
Mason told the panel, chaired by Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, that the idea of Tomblin’s bill is to produce the best possible outcomes and get the highest return for dollars invested in education.
“Compared nationally, our test scores are slipping and what we’re doing is not working,” she said.
Based on feedback from the business community, she said a skilled, educated workforce is needed.
“Therefore, we no longer can conduct business as usual in the classrooms,” she added.
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