While most discussions inside education reform hearings held around the state these past couple of weeks have focused on support services for children suffering from the trauma of growing up in broken homes, the benefits and drawbacks of charter schools and the advantages and disadvantages of education savings accounts, we hope academic rigor and a complete overhaul of the administrative system that directs educational services do not get lost in the shuffle.

Not all education issues – too easily and long ignored in this state by both political parties – can be solved overnight, but we must get started. Parents, policymakers and the public, in general, must sense the urgency of the challenges and possibilities at our doorstep.

We believe there are four main issues at play, two to be addressed immediately, two others that need a little more time on the stove.

It is widely known that our schools are poorly equipped and staffed to address student trauma. Deciphering algebraic symbols and solving complex equations do not top the concerns of kids who come from homes ravaged by poverty, drugs and abuse – up to and including assault. Trauma and despair are real and psychologically crippling. Our children need trained and professional academic, psychiatric and social services counselors.

So, let’s start there.

This past December, Christina Mullins, commissioner of the bureau for behavioral health at the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, told a joint legislative committee that it would take roughly $100 million for the state to employ the number of new mental health workers needed in state schools, K-12.

Additionally, some 700 classrooms are without a qualified teacher. To fill those positions, a second 5 percent pay raise – without any strings attached – would go a long way to encourage college kids to give education a look, to stay at home and to be a valued part of the solution. Besides, before the Legislature was gaveled into session this year, the pay raise was promised – by the governor and by Republican leadership. But here we are in overtime, the legislative session long ago gaveled to a close, with teacher pay being used as a political pawn in negotiations so that special interests from outside the state can profit from the establishment of charters and ESAs.

Legislators need to forget that noise and make good on their promise to boost teacher pay.

And before the opportunity passes us by, let’s study how we might better organize the state Department of Education, and we can start with this very simple question: Do we really need 55 separate school districts, one for each county? With the news this past week that Wyoming County schools suffered a loss of some 100 students from a year ago and with teacher and staff layoffs on the butcher’s block, folks beyond Bolt Mountain must be wondering when the next schoolhouse will close.

Ask the folks in Fayetteville or Smithers in Fayette County how they are feeling about the loss of their high schools.

One solution is to make the district bigger – consolidate districts, not schools – thereby spreading the pain so that it does not hurt so much in any one place.

Additionally, there would be but one superintendent salary and one superintendent’s office to fund – with assurances that Wyoming East and Westside could go about their spirited rivalry without interruption.

Along with any statewide reorganizational plan and a teacher pay raise, there must also be an intense focus on upping our standards. In recent years, this state has acted to reduce the number of school days, cut the number of credits needed for graduation and made it easier for kids to get a better grade.

All of that is moving in the wrong direction.

To better prepare our high school graduates for college – and they should all be aiming for some kind of post-secondary education – then we must ask and expect more of them and their teachers. We must develop a course of study that makes it easy for a student to tailor a program unique to his or her interests and strengths while enjoying the breadth and depth of a meaningful education be it in STEM-related courses or the humanities.

The state’s current priorities are not aligned to deliver on any such plan. Nor will we see a stack of dollars collected anytime soon that could fund such an initiative. Well, not unless we shift gears, not unless our politicians and heads of government stop by the shop for an attitude adjustment and not unless we all admit that to make the engines of education work, we’ll need to fill the tank with gas.

Remember, when Gov. Jim Justice decided the state needed to fix its roads, legislation passed and the people of the state overwhelming approved a bond issue to fund the “Roads to Prosperity” project. If we are as concerned about our children as our roads, if we cared as much about quality education and all of the economic good that would generate, we could find a way forward.

But as the folks in Wyoming County can tell you, the time is at hand.

Now.

The Register-Herald

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