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January 15, 2016 — Volume 36 Issue 1

 

“Journalism is literature in a hurry.” – Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), British poet and cultural critic.

 

By Jim Wallace

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin wants to change the Innovation Zones program – and he wants legislators to quit treating public education as a “political football.”

The governor also wants tax increases that could help mitigate planned health care benefit cuts for public employees and is proud success in diverting students from truancy.

“Over the past year, the delivery of public education in West Virginia has been used as a political football by members of both parties,” Tomblin told legislators in his State of the State address Wednesday evening. “It’s disappointing. It’s unacceptable. And it’s a disservice to our kids.” — Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin

“Over the past year, the delivery of public education in West Virginia has been used as a political football by members of both parties,” Tomblin told legislators in his State of the State address Wednesday evening. “It’s disappointing. It’s unacceptable. And it’s a disservice to our kids.” 

Senate Education Chairman Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, said he took that comment to be a reference to the legislature’s attempt last year to force the Department of Education and state school board to dump content standards based on the Common Core state standards. That bill failed when the House of Delegates and the Senate could not resolve differences between their two versions. Since then, the board adopted new standards based on comments received from thousands of West Virginians on how to improve the old standards, but some legislators are not convinced that the new standards have move far enough away from the Common Core. 

Asked whether the legislature might try to pass another anti-Common Core bill this year, Sypolt said, “I really can’t say. I haven’t spoken to my caucus. I know there’s been a lot of talk about that out-and-out repeal of Common Core, but I would say that the board of education is definitely changing their outlook on what standards should be, so hopefully we can work with [the governor].”

The new chairman of the House Education Committee, Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said he didn’t know how to respond to Tomblin’s “political football” remark. “Certainly, I would agree with the governor that we really should not politicize this issue,” he said. “I think we really need to look at what is in the best interest of our students.”

Espinosa noted that West Virginia ranks high for how much the state spends per student but ranks low for student achievement.

“I certainly don’t like seeing Common Core being any more of a distraction than it has,” he said. “I was extremely pleased when I heard that the board finally was going to repeal Common Core because I do believe that it has become a distraction.” — Delegate Paul Espinosa

“I certainly don’t like seeing Common Core being any more of a distraction than it has,” he said. “I was extremely pleased when I heard that the board finally was going to repeal Common Core because I do believe that it has become a distraction.”

But Espinosa said he and other legislators are concerned that the new standards are just “Common Core rebranded.” Although he said he doesn’t want Common Core to be a distraction this legislative session, “I do anticipate that we will move forward with legislation that will codify the repeal of Common Core, set in place a thoughtful process by which solid standards can be created and adopted that will gain the confidence of West Virginians and also address many of the concerns associated with testing, which, of course, has been a major concern among parents and other across the state.”

Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, said she had been calling education a political football weeks before the governor said it. She said political debates over Common Core and the related issue of testing has distracted policymakers from addressing the problem of having about 600 vacancies in teaching positions across West Virginia. “We have to stop attacking the things that aren’t going to make a difference for those kids that are in those classrooms and in those communities every single day,” she said.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, also agreed that legislators have made education issues too political. “If we want to make true education reform, we need to go to the experts of education, which are the educators who deal with it each and every day and bring them to the table,” he said. “Politicians cannot make the best decisions on education. The educators are the experts.”

Last year, Tomblin also vetoed a bill that would have given school districts more options for making up lost days of instruction. In this week’s State of the State address, he said, “At a time when comprehensive reform has led to real improvements and our students are more competitive with their peers in other states, we need to build on these successes – not introduce legislation that prioritizes summer vacations over a good education. We cannot allow politics or red tape to get in the way of providing our kids with a thorough and efficient education.”

Governor proposes new approach for innovation  in schools.

“While there are a number of reasons why traditional charter schools are not the best option for our students, we can find common ground by rewarding schools for innovation and creativity while raising student achievement. That’s why I’m introducing legislation to restructure the current Innovation Zone system to establish a new program – called Innovation in Education.” — Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin

Similarly, the governor does not share many legislators’ interest in allowing charter schools to operate in West Virginia. “While there are a number of reasons why traditional charter schools are not the best option for our students, we can find common ground by rewarding schools for innovation and creativity while raising student achievement,” Tomblin said. “That’s why I’m introducing legislation to restructure the current Innovation Zone system to establish a new program – called Innovation in Education.”

His proposed legislation would reallocate almost $2.5 million in existing education funding to help schools develop new methods to increase students’ interest in science, technology, engineering, math and entrepreneurship. “By giving schools the flexibility to focus on these subjects, we can teach our students how to think critically – a skill they need to be successful long after they’ve graduated high school,” Tomblin said.

Sypolt said, “I fully support that. I think we’ve had a very successful Innovation Zones program.” He called Innovation Zones “wildly successful, and I’m in favor of expanding any program that’s been successful. We need all the help we can get.”

Espinosa said he is interested in learning more about Tomblin’s Innovation in Education proposal, but he still wants to pursue legislation to authorize charter schools. “We’ve talked for decades about unleashing the bureaucracy that, I think, in many respects restricts innovation at the local school level,” he said. “But despite repeated calls for reducing those restrictions at the state level, our schools still continue to underperform.”

Public charter schools would lead to innovations that could be spread to other schools, Espinosa said. “Public charter schools with strong accountability, I think, can unleash that innovation that’s so sorely lacking across our state,” he said.

Lee said the Innovation Zone program already is doing that. He said he wished Tomblin would have included the arts among the subjects that his Innovations in Education proposal would promote. “For many of our kids, the arts are the most important thing, Lee said.

Campbell said she is excited about the Innovation in Education proposal. “We talked about that last year when we were in the charter school issue,” she said.

Budget would retain cuts but also put more into PEIA.

The governor’s budget proposals also will affect education. Tomblin wants the legislature to pass a budget for the next fiscal year that will be about 3 percent lower than the budget for the current year, even though he wants to raise two taxes – on tobacco and telecommunications. That proposed budget would incorporate spending cuts he imposed during the current fiscal year – including a 1 percent cut in the School Aid Formula – and the previous two fiscal years.

In past years, the governor has avoided calling for tax increases. However, reduced tax collections, especially severance tax collections, have left the state facing more than $820 million in budget shortfalls this fiscal year and next fiscal year unless the administration and the legislature make big changes.

“As we work to find new ways to ensure our tax base is both stable and more diverse, we must also seriously consider new revenue opportunities.” — Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin

“As we work to find new ways to ensure our tax base is both stable and more diverse, we must also seriously consider new revenue opportunities,” Tomblin told legislators. He said that is why he is introducing bills to increase the tobacco tax by 45 cents on a pack of cigarettes for a total of $1.00 per pack.

“This increase will be considered too high by some people and too low by others,” Tomblin said. “But it strikes a balance that protects retailers in our border counties and discourages our young people from smoking, while generating nearly $71.5 million annually in new revenue.”

Some of that money would go toward the state’s contribution for public employees’ health insurance premiums through the Public Employees Insurance Agency. The administration figures that $43 million of that revenue, combined with savings from a new prescription drug contract, should mitigate much of the $120 million in planned benefit cuts for PEIA members.

Tomblin also has proposed a bill that would eliminate a sales tax exemption that he said would bring West Virginia’s telecommunications tax in line with those of 41 other states. It would apply the state’s 6 percent sales tax to cell phone and phone line usage, allowing the state to collect an extra $60 million each year.

The telecommunications tax increase might face an easier path in the legislature than the tobacco tax increase. Senate President Bill Cole said, “Generally speaking, we’re going to resist tax increases. When we feel like there’s opportunity for savings and other means, we’re going to look to those first. If we can cut waste or fraud or corruption or whatever, we want to do that first.”

“I always say where West Virginia is an outlier, we need to come to the middle. So if this is one of those cases, then certainly we’ll look at it. But nothing’s off the table. We got to look at everything.” — Senate President Bill Cole

However, he said he is more favorable to a tax like the one on telecommunications that would close a loophole and bring West Virginia in line with most other states. “If that’s the case, then maybe it’s something that we need to look at, too,” Cole, R-Mercer, said. “I always say where West Virginia is an outlier, we need to come to the middle. So if this is one of those cases, then certainly we’ll look at it. But nothing’s off the table. We got to look at everything.”

Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said the governor’s budget proposals are a good start. “But I’m glad that he took it on because the [budget] hole is deep,” he said. “It’s a little frightening. I’m glad he didn’t say he presented us with a balanced budget. He basically presented us ideas for balancing the budget because the budget is not balanced without our actions.”

In the House of Delegates, Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said he would have to discuss the proposed tax increases with his Republican caucus. “But I do think there has been voiced to me a great deal of reluctance about raising taxes [and] that there is more appetite within our caucus to make those tough decisions and put our budget more in line with what the economic reality is,” he said. “We no longer have the same amount of tax revenue coming in, so we need to make adjustments, and that will entail some pretty tough decisions. But we need to make them, and we need to make them this year.”

On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, is more willing to consider the governor’s proposals. “If you don’t increase taxes, I’m not aware of any readily identifiable source of revenue that you can just turn the spigot on to increase,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said he is glad that Tomblin is willing to consider tax increases for the first time since he became governor. “I think he recognized that we’re going to have to raise some additional revenues and a willingness to increase some taxes,” Kessler said.

Lee said he was disappointed with Tomblin’s proposals, partly because he said nothing about increasing pay for teachers. Lee said he is glad the governor wants to put more money into PEIA, although that will mean public employees will have to pay more because they must pay 20 percent of their premium costs while the state pays 80 percent of their premiums.

“I really have to see the numbers to see that it is really going to create the opportunity for more money in PEIA, which is a good thing,” he said. “But with the 80/20, what that means is, instead of the dramatic cuts that we saw, what we’re going to see are premium increases. So I have to look at the numbers to really see what the premium increases are going to be for that. At least, the state’s putting some money in, which is a good thing, but it’s not the solution to the problem.”

Campbell said anything – including fixing PEIA’s problems – that can help fill teaching vacancies is moving in the right direction. “But I just hope all the legislators are going to work together to make sure we fully fund this and not just put a Band Aid on the problem,” she said.

Tomblin did promise better budget years in the near future for West Virginia. “In spite of the tight budget years of the past, our new six-year budget forecast shows surpluses of nearly $7 million in 2019, $89 million in 2020 and $118 million in 2021,” he said. “While I won’t be in office to see these surpluses, I’m proud to have been part of more than 30 years of responsible fiscal policies that have put us on the path to a brighter financial future.”

Members of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability this week indicated they were leaning toward requiring changes in the way professional development is provided for West Virginia teachers. But the winds of change seemed to calm down after they learned that the Department of Education already is making some of the changes legislators want – and saving money doing so.

The committee also heard that Innovation Zones have helped to increase attendance and graduation rates in West Virginia schools.

Clayton Burch, the department’s chief academic officer, told them even the term “professional development” has been replaced with “professional learning.” He said the state school board’s new Policy 5500 is driving more training for teachers to the local level instead of having them come to Charleston for training sessions. It is shifting the culture of professional learning, he said, calling it a “big shift for the department.”

“Under my leadership of the Division of Teaching and Learning for the last 18 months…there have not been the mass trainings that were seen in the past. This policy is driving professional learning to the schools.” — Claxton Burch

“Under my leadership of the Division of Teaching and Learning for the last 18 months…there have not been the mass trainings that were seen in the past,” Burch said. “This policy is driving professional learning to the schools.”

Burch wasn’t prepared to cite any figures, but he said the new effort to have more professional learning at the local level is saving a substantial amount of money. “Our money and effort now is going to be spent on the resources and paths that those folks need at the local level, so I know that my office is not spending nearly the dollars we were spending on professional development,” he said.

Later, Burch said, “I know that this year it was much less. It was a fraction of the cost.” The new policy also should affect how school districts spend their own money on professional development, he said.

“You know, if we don’t need funds for travel and to bring large groups of people together, are we diverting those funds back into the classroom, back into resources for those teachers?” Burch asked.

Before Burch made his presentation in the second of two meetings the commission held this week, legislators had peppered other speakers with many questions about whether professional development was being handled well. House Education Chairman, Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said he questioned the relevancy of much of the professional development teachers have been receiving.

In response, Teresa Hammond of the Office of Early Learning, said, “You can’t throw a ball and hit all the targets with one ball.” She added, “Great professional development can change practice.” But she said such success has been sporadic.

Hammond said that research has shown that teachers need to be “involved in professional learning communities, where they can identify their own needs based on the study of data and the study of what is needed through a process of self-reflection.” She said the teacher evaluation system helps teachers go through that process. Once teachers hone in on their needs, then principals, other administrators and coordinators from the Regional Education Service Agencies can plan for professional learning, she said.

“This process takes time, and I don’t think we’re going to see a great overwhelming change overnight.” — Teresa Hammond

“This process takes time, and I don’t think we’re going to see a great overwhelming change overnight,” Hammond said. “Teachers’ not being given the opportunity to derive their own professional learning, it has made them rather hesitant to ask.” She said the teachers will have to reach a level of comfort with the process, so the Education Department will have to be patient and persistent.

Delegate David Perry, D-Fayette, asked whether there is adequate time in the school year for staff development. Hammond responded with a yes-and-no answer. “I do feel that we can look at time in a different way than we have traditionally looked at time during the school year to provide flexibility to teachers and to administrators,” She said the Education Department is proposing a “Reimagining Time” policy, which is out for public comment, that would offer alternatives, such as flexible staffing to allow teachers to meet during the workday. She said there is a push for teachers to meet daily as groups to discuss student data.

Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, asked whether there are too many mandates on what types of training teachers should receive. Hammond said most of the mandates are the result of lawsuits, and that’s important. “We want our teachers to be well versed in school law and be very aware of what is going on publicly as far as sexual harassment, bullying, that kind of [thing],” she said. Many counties have used online training, so teachers can have more time in the classroom before school begins, but then teachers must do their training during their own time in the evening, she said. Also, Hammond said, some districts require certain training that is not mandated by the state, so she wants to do a comparison of what the state mandates and what the districts require.

Graduation rates benefit from Innovation Zones.

On another matter, Michele Blatt, the Education Department’s chief accountability officer, reported that districts’ use of Innovation Zones has helped increase graduation rates. She said West Virginia is now fourth among the states with an 86.5 percent four-year cohort graduation rate. Decreasing the number of high school dropouts was one focus of the Innovation Zone legislation in 2011, she said.

The department awarded seven Innovation Zone grants for dropout prevention in October and five grants for promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in December, Blatt said. Some Innovation Zone funding was left over, she said, so the department offered it in the form of planning grants to 18 counties that had never received Innovation Zone grants. 

Blatt said many state board policy changes have resulted from Innovation Zone waivers requested by school districts, especially regarding dropout prevention. As a result, she said, attendance rates and graduation rates have increased consistently, and some districts have seen increases in English and math achievement. She said funding for Innovation Zone grants is in two line-items in the state budget: $2.3 million for dropout prevention grants and $465,000 for regular Innovation Zones, which are targeted this year toward STEM.

“I don’t believe the student attendance rates are accurate,” — Delegate David Perry

However, Perry expressed some skepticism about attendance rates, especially in regard to attendance at the end of the school year after testing ends. “I don’t believe the student attendance rates are accurate,” he said. “When the test is over, students quit coming to school. And in situations where days have been added to meet that magic number [of 180 instructional days in the school year], students are not coming to school. So somewhere, somebody is playing the figures.”

Susan O’Brien, director of the Office of Education Performance Audits, said that should be easier to check in the years ahead as her office begins a cyclical review process of every school. She said her staff will be sure to look at the raw data, not just at what districts report to the state.

By Jim Wallace

The Joint Standing Committee on Education has made several recommendations to the full legislature on such issues as Common Core, charter schools and funding for replacing school buses. 

On the issue of the Common Core State Standards, committee members still don’t trust that the new content standards adopted last month by the state school board have changed enough from the old standards that were based on Common Core. Thus, the committee this week approved this recommendation: “While the Committee recognizes that the State Board of Education has made changes to the Math and English/Language Arts standards, the Education committees should continue to review the standards issue and pursue legislation as appropriate. The Committee also recommends that the Education committees consider pursuing ACT assessment tests that are administered in the 3rd, 6th, 8th, and 11th grades only; are Common Core free; and are aligned with a new set of standards.”

That part about the ACT was added after Delegate Walter Duke, R-Berkeley, said he had heard that the state board doesn’t want to use ACT anymore because ACT won’t sign West Virginia’s confidentiality agreement. He said the legislature should look into that. Delegate David Perry, D-Fayette, then offered the amendment to require ACT to be given in grades three, six, eight and 11 only.

Charter schools issue divides legislators.

On charter schools, the committee passed this recommendation: “The Education committees should pursue legislation relating to authorizing public charter schools.” But members were split over it. A charter school bill that failed to pass last year was controversial.

“At a time when our state is in real problems financially, I think that trying to resurrect this revenue horse yet one more time will prove to be somewhat costly, at least in terms of our time.” — Delegate David Perry

Delegate David Perry, D-Fayette, and Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, expressed concerns about the costs. “At a time when our state is in real problems financially, I think that trying to resurrect this revenue horse yet one more time will prove to be somewhat costly, at least in terms of our time,” Perdue said.

Perry said legislators already have provided school districts with many ways to have more flexibility, such as with Innovation Zones and waivers, so he didn’t see a good reason for approving charter schools. “There would be additional costs associated with this,” he said. “We have reduced funding, and we’d be creating another layer of educational bureaucracy to fund.”

Delegate Ricky Moye, D-Raleigh, pursued another line of reasoning. “These charter schools are exempt from the state board of education rules and regulations to a large extent,” he said. “Then why are we not looking at doing that for all of our schools instead of picking and choosing a few?”

Hank Hager, counsel for the Senate Education Committee, said he understood the reason for proposed legislation for authorizing charter schools is to allow them to innovate in ways that might be replicated by other schools. But that didn’t satisfy Moye.

“It appears to me that, if the rules and regulations of the state board of education are imposing upon our schools is a hindrance and the charter schools [legislation] exempts these schools from that, and that’s what we’re looking at doing, that by doing charter schools, we’re picking winners and losers,” he said. “And we ought to just exempt all of our schools from that and forget the charter schools.”

Some people at the meeting applauded at that suggestion.

A strong proponent of charter schools, Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, said a 12-year school in Harmon was threatened with closure two years ago, but it could be turned into a charter school if the legislature would pass the proposed legislation. “We actually could see something of a reversal with this constant series of consolidations that we’ve had from small, community schools to much larger schools and children being bused sometimes for more than an hour and a half,” he said.

“It could be an incredible asset for our school systems.” — Sen. Mitch Carmichael

Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, pointed out that the committee was considering only a recommendation rather than a detailed bill. He suggested that members who would vote against the recommendation would be burying their heads in the sand and not looking at any options. “It could be an incredible asset for our school systems,” he said.

The committee approved the recommendation on a voice vote with the nays almost as loud as the yes votes.

Buses would be replaced more often under recommendation.

Another recommendation to return to a 12-year replacement cycle for school buses received no opposition. Because of the state’s tight budget, the allocation for bus replacements was lowered to $15 million during the current fiscal year and was scheduled to be $18 million this year, but legislators heard from transportation officials from school districts who complained that they would not be able to replace worn-out buses often enough with that funding.

The recommendation the committee approved would return the allocation for school buses to the previous level of $21,207,531 for the fiscal year beginning in July.

Two other recommendations the committee approved were:

  • Expansion throughout the state of services offered by Marshall University’s Luke Lee Listening, Language & Learning Lab; and
  • Extension of provisions of last year’s House Bill 2005 providing for alternative teacher certification for another year to see if that would help address shortages of teachers.

Sarah Stewart, an attorney for the Department of Education, told the committee that no district has applied yet for such certification, but there is still time. “I think that we can hope to decrease the 700 shortages,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll fix that with this program.”

Delegate Roy Cooper, R-Summers, said a problem with last year’s bill is that current teachers don’t like the alternative certification. He suggested that the Department of Education might need to force districts to use the program.

“With 700 teachers short, we got to do something, folks, and it may not be charter schools, and it may not be repeal of Common Core. It may just be getting some teachers in some classrooms.” — Delegate Roy Cooper

“With 700 teachers short, we got to do something, folks, and it may not be charter schools, and it may not be repeal of Common Core,” Cooper said. “It may just be getting some teachers in some classrooms.”

The committee also had authority over the past several months to consider a proposal to reduce the state school board’s budget and redirect the money to teacher salary increases. But the committee didn’t look at that issue directly and instead heard a presentation relating to the 2012 Public Works audit of the state’s education system.

 

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has appointed two educators to fill vacancies in the House of Delegates. He chose Frank Blackwell, who is superintendent of the Wyoming County schools, to fill a vacancy in the 25th House District that was created when former Delegate Linda Goode Phillips resigned. Tomblin chose Phyllis White, who recently retired as principal at Gilbert Elementary School, to represent residents of the 21st House District. She fills the vacancy created by the recent resignation of her husband, Harry Keith White. 

Blackwell, who has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Marshall University, has been an educator for almost a half-century. He has worked as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent for Wyoming County schools. Blackwell served in the House of Delegates from 1977 to 1982, when he left the House to accept the job as superintendent.

With 34 years in his position, Blackwell is the longest-serving superintendent in the state. He plans to retire June 30.

White also has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Marshall University. She worked for the Mingo County school system for 32 years. Last year, she was named the Principal of the Year for Regional Education Service Agency 2.

 

Editor’s Note – Jim Wallace is a former government reporter for theCharleston Daily Mail, former news director of West Virginia Public Radio and former news director of WWVA/WOVK radio in Wheeling. He now works for TSG Consulting, a public relations and governmental affairs company with offices in Charleston and Beckley. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from The Ohio State University and a master’s degree in journalism from West Virginia University. Wallace is the author of the 2012 book,A History of the West Virginia Capitol: The House of State.