Last updated: July 18. 2013 2:09PM - 182 Views
Lawrence Messina
Associated Press

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia would change how county school districts hire teachers, free up more days on their calendars to bolster student instruction and require full-week schooling for 4-year-olds statewide, under legislation sent to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Friday.

The House of Delegate passed the bill, the centerpiece of the Democratic governor’s agenda this session, by a 95-2 vote. The measure offers to help teachers with loans, covers the renewal fee for those with national certification, and revamps the way the state Department of Education accredits schools and provides professional development.

It also advances several key goals in Tomblin’s drive to improve West Virginia’s low-ranking student achievement scores. One aims to ensure that high school students finish their junior year ready for college or career training, with remedial courses offered for those who aren’t ready while they are seniors. Tomblin also wants all third-graders reading at that level by the time they finish that grade.

Lawmakers from both parties joined Tomblin at the podium in his Capitol reception room to herald the bill’s final passage.

“We’re all here today because we believe our children deserve the best education possible,” said Tomblin. He added that when it comes to student performance, “We’ve been missing the mark.”

Groups representing teachers and school workers were on hand after successfully lobbying for several changes to the bill. So were officials with the state Chamber of Commerce, which led a large business-industry coalition that rallied support for Tomblin’s proposal. State Board of Education President Wade Linger and schools Superintendent James Phares joined the governor as well.

The Senate unanimously passed the bill Monday after adding the changes sought by the education groups. Those reserve some days in the school calendar for teacher activities, and expanded Tomblin’s proposed criteria for teacher hiring. As amended, the bill also gives principals and faculty senates a greater say when already-employed educators are among the candidates for a classroom teaching post.

In perhaps the biggest concession to these groups, the Senate removed language that would have allowed the nonprofit Teach for America program into West Virginia schools. The changes also require the Department of Education to trim non-classroom personnel costs by 5 percent in each of the next two budget years.

The Senate removed the $175,000 salary cap for the state schools superintendent. With the state board seeking to conduct a national search for job candidates, the bill already dropped the requirement that a superintendent’s master’s degree has to be in education administration.

Tomblin and lawmakers have focused on public schools in the wake of an audit that contrasted hefty taxpayer spending with poor student achievement. That study also compared West Virginia to other states and found it uniquely burdened by highly detailed education laws and a large number of state-level employees relative to the student population.

Friday’s 95-2 House vote came after failed attempts Thursday by the minority Republicans to cut department staffing further, add charter schools and offer teachers a tougher evaluation process in exchange for cash bonuses. Republican Delegates Marty Gearheart of Mercer County and Larry Kump of Berkeley cast Friday’s nay votes.

“I’m concerned about the state Board of Education still being too top-heavy and with too much authority over local schools,” Kump told colleagues.

Before voting for the bill, a number of other Republicans said they were disappointed it didn’t take bolder steps to shake up West Virginia’s education system. Some also lamented the victories won by the teachers’ groups. Democrats, meanwhile, expressed pride in the final bill, and hope that it will mark a turnaround for education.

“No bill does everything we need to do, but this bill does a whole lot of good things,” said Delegate Josh Stowers, a Lincoln Democrat who’s also an assistant principal. “This is going to be good for kids… We did something good this year.”

Several lawmakers argued for fast-tracking additional measures to improve schools. Tomblin already plans to sign executive orders and has appealed to the state board to take further steps. Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, cast the bill as a starting point for needed change.

Speaking at the governor’s press conference, Lee called for providing more time for teachers to collaborate, having stronger anti-truancy and mentoring programs, holding parents more accountable and “making sure we have the best teachers in front of our students each and every day, and that includes paying them what they’re worth.”

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