Legislative News

October 16, 2018 - Volume 38 Issue 10

The West Virginia School Board Association’s (WVSBA) October 13 county board member training session devoted to school district excess levies was well-received.

“Without a doubt this program proved to be powerful both in terms of information provided as well as guidance - practical, tried-and-true strategic guidance - for county boards,” according to Howard O’Cull, WVSBA Executive Director, who developed the program.

According to O’Cull the “key” to the program’s success included a multi-phasic format for exploring excess levies, including historical foundations, election patterns regarding excess levies, and various legal considerations, including limitations on direct county board members’ involvement in levy elections, especially in terms of use of public resources, and standards and practices for excess levy campaigns.

“I also believe the stakeholder focus group - a small but diverse group of folks - greatly informed the program,” he said.

The focus group was conducted by Matt Price, Vice President, Research for Finn Partners, Washington, DC. Scott Widmeyer, Founding Managing Partner and Chief Strategy Officer/Washington Finn Partners served as press secretary for former Gov. Jay Rockefeller.

One-day, one topic training sessions.

According to O’Cull the conference had been scheduled for mid-September but was rescheduled due to weather considerations, based on consultations with state Homeland Security. The October 13 session garnered several county board members’ comments about use of a one-day training session providing in-depth discussion about a particular topic.

He said several county board members mentioned “understanding student academic achievement, how to interpret student testing and assessment data, and what role the county board has in terms of student achievement ‘involvement.’”

“We will explore this format. Other areas quickly come to mind, including school finances, county board roles and responsibilities, community involvement strategies…Again, this field is ripe and members, I think, appreciate the format, especially if a multi-dimensional approach is used,” said O’Cull.

The association executive director said he would be providing this recommendation to the County Board Member Training Standards Review Committee (TSRC) which is to meet in November.

Training documents posted online

Documents for the WVSBA training session are posted online.

By Jim Wallace

The problem of having county assessors fail to properly assess property values seems to have gone away for now. That’s important for school districts, which depend heavily on property tax revenue to finance their operations.

Jeff Amburgey, director of the Property Tax Division at the Tax Department, told members of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability that West Virginia has gone in less than a decade from having several counties each year fail to do proper assessments to none. He said five counties failed in 2011, six in 2012, three in 2013, four in 2014, one in 2015, and none in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

“I think that is progress,” Amburgey said.

Property values are to be assessed at 60 percent of market value with leeway of 10 percent, so anything from 54 percent to 66 percent is considered acceptable.

“Several years ago, there was a law that would have penalized school boards if the assessor was under 54 percent. School boards thought it was punitive to hurt the school children based on the work of the assessor, so in 2014, that law was changed to say if they’re not at 54 percent, we won’t hurt the school systems but we will possibly remove the assessor or appoint a special assessor. That happened in 2014, and I think that has had a positive effect as we’ve seen in the last three year no assessor has failed their sales ratio.” – Jeff Amburgey

“Several years ago, there was a law that would have penalized school boards if the assessor was under 54 percent,” Amburgey said. “School boards thought it was punitive to hurt the school children based on the work of the assessor, so in 2014, that law was changed to say if they’re not at 54 percent, we won’t hurt the school systems but we will possibly remove the assessor or appoint a special assessor. That happened in 2014, and I think that has had a positive effect as we’ve seen in the last three years no assessor has failed their sales ratio.”

Assessments went up 1 percent statewide in the past year, he said. They would have gone up more if oil and gas values had not declined significantly, Amburgey said, and that hurt growth in real estate and other aspects of the economy.

By Jim Wallace

“I think we have a very accurate depiction of performance of students in schools and districts throughout the state.” – Supt. Steve Paine

Leaders in the West Virginia Department of Education are expressing confidence in their latest method for evaluating the performance of schools across the state, even though many schools are disappointed with their scores. In particular, the Balanced Scorecard evaluation revealed that students’ performance in mathematics is especially lagging throughout the state.

“I think we have a very accurate depiction of performance of students in schools and districts throughout the state,” state Supt. Steve Paine told the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability. Many people thought the new system would be easier than the A-through-F grading system for schools that the state recently scrapped, but it’s not, he said. The Balanced Scorecard allows districts to hone in on what they need to improve, he said.

“I think we have a rigorous system,” Paine said, adding that it has high standards, but they are attainable. “There is no reason why any school in the state can’t attain some kind of improvement next year…. We’re looking forward to building from this first-year base.”

Melanie Purkey, senior administrator for federal programs with the Department of Education, said the department is getting positive feedback from the schools on the benchmark scores. “They like the fact that all of the indicators have equal weight and their strengths or their weaknesses are visible from the scorecard,” she said. They also like that the assessments are not based on just one test, she said.

Paine said the department is working on addressing deficiencies in students’ math achievement. The problem has existed for many years, he said, “But we are going to attack the problem like we have not attacked it before.”

Another deficiency that has shown up in the Balanced Scorecard is attendance, he said.

State board revises policy for alternative certification of teachers.

On another matter, Michele Blatt, assistant state superintendent, told legislators that the state school board’s Policy 5901, Alternative Certification Programs for the Education of Teachers, is out for comment through mid-October. She said the revised policy removes outdated language, such as references to the Regional Education Service Agencies that were eliminated after the last school year. She said the policy also would clarify that districts can partner with other districts and with the state department for alternative certification programs.

Blatt said the department has 14 approved programs that cover 53 districts. Of those, 27 districts have taken advantage of the programs to have teachers working in classrooms, she said.

“I think it’s definitely helping with our lack of certified teachers that we have in the state.” – Michele Blatt

“I think it’s definitely helping with our lack of certified teachers that we have in the state,” she said. “I also think we’ve got a lot of work to do to expand it across the state. We currently have 41 alternatively certified teachers in the classroom due to this program.”

Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, said the department should have tough requirements for teacher certification programs. “I give you my full support of making it tough on these schools because what we’re getting in the school system aren’t prepared for the 21st century in some way,” he said. Blatt said the state school board has received other comments along that line.

In addition, the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability heard from Tom Campbell, financial officer for the state school board, who said the board is trying to consider student needs before making funding decisions because those needs are different than in the past. For example, he said, the board has learned that the number of students certified for free and reduced-price meals is greater than ever. From fiscal year 2005 to fiscal year 2018, the number rose from 57,504 to 133,501. The percentages of the student population went from 20.5 to 49.2. Meanwhile, Campbell said, the total student headcount declined in that period from 279,933to 271,313.

By Jim Wallace

West Virginia students’ scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are improving, but a state Education Department official said they’re not good enough, and the department is working on changing that.

“We have plans to work through this and get the improvements that we think our students deserve,” Jan Barth, a senior advisor to state Supt. Steve Paine, told the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability.

Since 2000, when NAEP testing began, West Virginia students’ scores have improved quite a bit, she said, but they still lag behind the national average, which itself is not as good as it should be.

In 2000, 17 percent of West Virginia students scored at or above the level of proficiency. In 2015, it was 33 percent. In 2017, it was 35 percent. The national average in 2017 was 43 percent. In eighth-grade mathematics, West Virginia students were at 17 percent in 2000, 21 percent in 2015 and 24 percent in 2017. The national average in 2017 was 34 percent. Reading scores were better but also lagged the nation.

“Our biggest deficiency is in eighth-grade mathematics,” Barth said. “The nation has a lot of work to do, but so does West Virginia. We’re here today to own this data. We know that we have issues. We know that we need to get to the business of improving mathematic achievement in West Virginia, not just on a NAEP test but for students for their learning and their workplace progress and for their college readiness.”

There are some highlights in West Virginia’s NAEP scores. For example, West Virginia’s black students ranked sixth in the nation with 25 percent of them performing at or above the level of proficiency. Also, among students who are eligible for free school lunch, West Virginia scores higher than most states. Barth said the state has devoted many resources to helping those students but hasn’t devoted the same resources to the total population of students.

West Virginia also ranks well for students with disabilities. “And that’s not an easy needle to move, but we’ve managed to move that, and that gives us faith that we can move the needle in all the categories,” Barth said.

In 2014, the legislature approved an early literacy program, which she said resulted in some gains in 2015. Barth said the Education Department hopes to continue those gains from fourth grade through eighth grade and into high school. Also, she said, the universal pre-kindergarten program, which began in 2002 and came into full fruition in 2012, is helping to make some improvements.

House Education Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, expressed concern that the current system might be holding back better students while concentrating on helping those with disadvantages. He suggested that mastery-based education, which he has tried to promote through legislation, might help.

“Everything’s on the table for the revolution that’s coming,” Barth responded. She said the Education Department has discussed that and has considered 24-hour online tutoring.

“One of the most powerful things we can do at this point is to get with the local school districts,” Barth said. The legislature has been shifting decision-making to more local control, she noted, so the department is looking to partner with the county school districts, especially in improving math skills.

Another direction the department is taking is rethinking teacher certification issues, she said.

“We just need to spread our wings and bring everyone into the circle because this does not work for anyone,” Barth said in reference to the current system.

Delegate Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, questioned the Education Department’s priority on math skills. He suggested more emphasis on reading is needed because reading is required to understand math skills. But Barth said the department believes it already has a good grade-level reading initiative that has been in place since 2014, so a focused math initiative is needed now.

“It addresses the poor performance in our mathematics,” Barth said. “We’ve been working on literacy the past two years, and we’re showing some gains there.”

House Education Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, complimented the department on establishing “a robust effort” to engage the public on the adoption of content standards. He said that would help alleviate concerns about standards, as happened when West Virginia adopted the Common Core standards several years ago.

Statler also expressed concern that students are not engaged enough in the testing to perform well on it. Barth agreed and added, “NAEP has serious concerns about their motivational issues because nothing is attached to it and it’s not taken seriously in many schools, so students don’t perform on it in necessarily a meaningful way.”

Another problem with the NAEP testing is that most of it is done in February, a few months before the school year is done, she said. That’s an issue, but not an excuse, Barth said.

By Jim Wallace

The mental health of children is becoming more of a concern in West Virginia, largely because of the effects of the drug epidemic. That’s why two legislative interim committees spent time on the issue during their meetings. Legislators heard that the problem is very bad, but several programs show promise in addressing it.

Most of the discussion occurred in a meeting of the Joint Committee on Health, where Jeremiah Samples, deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources, laid out the seriousness of the drug epidemic.

“Our overdose rate in the state leads the nation. We’re an outlier, in fact.” – Jeremiah Samples

“Our overdose rate in the state leads the nation,” he said. “We’re an outlier, in fact.”

West Virginia also has the nation’s highest rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome in drug-exposed babies. “Those statistics are really important to pay attention to because that is the next wave of children that hit the school system,” Samples said. “And schools and teachers are going to struggle and are already struggling to manage through this. So, I think part of the discussion today is about those supports.”

The growth in the number of children taken out of the homes because of bad things happening in those homes is heartbreaking, he said. “It is the most significant problem the state has faced in child welfare since the Great Depression, and I would wager that it may be worse than that,” Samples said.

The problem includes the breakdown of the family structure, he said. However, he said, DHHR’s Safe Home Initiative has helped reduce the number of kids taken out of homes and placed in institutional settings.

“It’s a human tragedy beyond just the statistics you see,” Samples said. “In terms of our relationship with the school system, it is critical. DHHR receives a significant number of CPS [Child Protective Services] referrals through the school system.” Many of those referrals come from school-based health systems, he said.

One factor in West Virginia’s favor is that many kids have health insurance. The Children’s Health Insurance Program covers about 21,000 of them and Medicaid covers about 210,000.

“It’s a significant chunk of our child population, and we have robust services for children in Medicaid,” Samples said. Many services are offered at 162 school-based health centers, some of them with behavioral health services, he said.

“It’s critical that these folks are on the ground, able to bill Medicaid.” – Jeremiah Samples

“It’s critical that these folks are on the ground, able to bill Medicaid,” Samples said. “It’s frankly leveraging that federal dollar for services that these kids need regardless of who pays for it.”

DHHR is working to expand school-based mental health services through a grant-funded pilot project. About 40 sites have been granted $30,000 each, Samples said, and 15,000 students benefitted from it in fiscal year 2017.

Other programs he mentioned included:

  • The Trauma-Informed Elementary Schools (TIES) program helps prepare schools to help troubled students. “The TIES pilot is critical,” Samples said. “We’re trying different things to mitigate the things that these kids are dealing with while they’re also trying to learn. And if you don’t have successful children, you’re not going to have successful adults and parents.”
  • Children’s Mobile Crisis Response is another pilot from the Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities. It supports kids experiencing behavioral health crises 24/7. It gives them someone to talk to. It is available in two locations: FMRS Health Systems in the Beckley area and United Summit Center in north-central West Virginia.
  • The Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities has pilot programs focusing on teens to young adults, ages 12 to 24, at six regional service centers. “There’s a recognition that a lot of the overdoses we have are coming at younger and younger ages,” Samples said. “These kids are being exposed to drugs in their home by their parents and their older siblings, and then they become addicted to drugs.”

DHHR also is considering functional family therapy. Samples said it’s relatively expensive, high-intensity service, but if you don’t deal with the family and the parents, it’s hard to help the child. “To help these children, we have to help their parents,” he said.

“I think we’re making some good progress in areas, but there’s other areas where we’re not making progress,” Samples said. “We just need to be honest about it. We need to look in the mirror, and when we’re not hitting the marks we need to hit or when we see our statistics continue to be poor, then we need to try something different.”

Concluding his presentation, Samples said this is the time to re-create West Virginia.

Troubled cases have ACES.

Christina Mullins, director of DHHR’s Office of Maternal, Child and Family Health, told the committee her agency is concerned about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which are traumatic events that occur in a child’s life prior to age 18.

“These negative experiences can harm a child’s brain in development, which can result in long-term health problems.” – Christina Mullins

“These negative experiences can harm a child’s brain in development, which can result in long-term health problems,” she said. Individuals who experience a high number of ACEs are more likely to experience mental and physical health problems, she said.

Mullins said ACE is defined as surviving any of these categories of abuse, neglect or loss:

  • Emotional abuse by a parent
  • Physical abuse by a parent
  • Sexual abuse by anyone
  • Emotional neglect
  • Physical neglect
  • Loss of a parent
  • Growing up with an alcohol- or drug-abuser in the household
  • Living with a family member experiencing mental illness
  • Experiencing the incarceration of a household member.

“Positive experiences in childhood can build a strong foundation for learning, strengthen brain development and help us be healthier,” she said. “A growing body of research shows that adverse childhood experiences and trauma have a profound impact and can be the stumbling block to our health and well-being. When negative experiences outweigh positive experiences, it can lead to physiological response in our body, which increases the risk of many health issues.”

Mullins said high levels of stress can affect brain development in children. “The parts of the brain that are responsive to threat may be overdeveloped,” she said. “Meanwhile, the parts of the brain that are needed for learning and healthy interaction can be underdeveloped. The result is poor mental and emotional health.”

Chronic disease is more prevalent in adults who experienced early childhood stress, Mullins added.

DHHR has been using surveys to collect data on ACEs since 2014 with help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mullins said the data show the most common ACE in West Virginia is substance abuse in the household, which was reported by 28.8 percent of survey respondents. Next was parental separation and divorce at 26.6 percent. Next was verbal abuse at 22.7 percent. Also, one in 10 West Virginia adults experienced a form of child sexual abuse prior to age 18.

About 55.8 percent of West Virginia adults report experiencing at least one of the categories of child abuse and household dysfunction while growing up, Mullins said, while about 13.8 percent experienced four or more ACEs. She also reported:

  • Females are more likely to be at high risk than males.
  • High-risk adults are less likely to complete college.
  • There is a high correlation between high levels of adversity in childhood and lower household income levels as adults.

Mullins said West Virginia has several programs that can help families thrive and prevent ACEs. They include:

  • Home visitation
  • Adolescent pregnancy prevention initiative
  • Trauma-informed preventive health visits in medical homes
  • Trauma-Informed Elementary Schools (TIES)
  • Handle with Care

Handle with Care helps schools help students.

Andrea Darr, director of the West Virginia State Police Center for Children’s Justice, explained that Handle with Care is a program that was developed by her center, which looks at the investigation, prosecution and resolution of cases of maltreatment of children. Handle with Care is funded by a DHHR grant.

The program is designed to alert schools when their students face traumatic situations in their households. Darr said it’s needed because of the opioid epidemic and the high rate of children who are transient or displaced. Many children live in homes with little supervision, she said, and many experience abuse and neglect and sometimes must be removed from their homes. Darr said trauma leads to bad behavior among some of them. Also, she said, West Virginia is second in the country for having grandparents raise grandchildren.

“Our drug-endangered children are having drug-endangered children.” – Andrea Darr

“Our drug-endangered children are having drug-endangered children,” she said, but even worse, West Virginia is on its third generation of drug-endangered children. “These are children that never felt safe in their own skin or their environment. They don’t know how to form healthy attachments. They don’t know how to behave, and they don’t know how to act. And they’re hitting our school systems, and they’re hitting our agencies. We just see these children with terrific behavior and emotional problems.”

Handle with Care is designed to help schools help children deal with their trauma, Darr said. “All this trauma turns off the learning switch,” she said, and teachers often don’t understand what children are going through. “The opioid crisis is blowing up the school system.”

“The opioid crisis is blowing up the school system.” – Andrea Darr

Darr said Handle with Care asks law enforcement officers at a scene where children are present to get their names, ages and the schools they attend. After an incident affecting a child, a confidential message is sent to the principal of the child’s school before the next school day begins. That allows the school to be proactive in addressing problems with the student instead of reactive.

“We want children, when they’re in school, to be able to behave, to focus and to learn in the classroom,” Darr said. “We know trauma affects that child’s ability to learn, so we’re going to have to deal with that trauma if we want that child to learn.”

Handle with Care started as a pilot program in cooperation with the Charleston Police Department and two Charleston schools in 2013, and then it went to three elementary schools in Huntington. “We realized very, very quickly this was a smart thing to do,” Darr said. In 2015, the State Police helped launch the program statewide.

Sgt. Doug Paxton, chaplain and director of executive projects for the Charleston Police Department, said he endorsed the program 100 percent. He called it very effective because it allows officers to do something to help a child even when the problem is not great enough for them to remove the child from the home.

Darr said the program is training teachers to create environments in which children feel safe. Five training sessions have room for up to 250 people this summer. The program also is asking schools to provide space for therapists and asking therapists to provide services at schools. Darr said that eliminates problems with transportation that parents would have in getting children to appointments.

“We want therapy on site at the school, and we want kids to go to their therapy at the best time in the class day,” she said. “If you’re struggling in math, you’re not going to therapy during math class.”

Darr said Handle with Care has been introduced in every county in West Virginia, although school districts are in different stages of implementation. She said it also is catching on in other states.

The committee also heard from Michele Blatt, assistant superintendent at Department of Education, who described various programs the department is using to address students mental health needs. She said she had recently attended a meeting of superintendents, who said the mental health crisis among students is the leading problem on their minds. She gave a similar presentation to the Joint Standing Committee on Education.

Delegate Martin Atkinson, R-Roane, suggested that school psychologists spend too much time testing and evaluating students. He said they should provide more behavioral health assistance to troubled kids. Blatt said the Education Department would be glad to work with DHHR on that.

By Jim Wallace

Legislators are again preparing to consider legislation in 2019 that would loosen West Virginia’s requirements for children to get immunizations for several diseases before entering school. The Joint Committee on Children and Families has voted to have a bill prepared that would change who can authorize medical exemptions from the immunization requirements.

The committee made that decision after hearing from three women who had trouble getting exemptions they thought were warranted for their children. Following those women’s testimony, the committee also heard mixed testimony about vaccines from several other people, including medical professionals on both sides of the issue.

West Virginia long has been stricter than most other states in requiring vaccinations. The current law, which the legislature passed in 2015, centralized authority to grant exemptions in the Bureau for Public Health. Specifically, the state public health officer has that authority, although he or she can appoint a state immunization officer to handle it. Previously, decisions on exemptions were handled on the county level, but that led to uneven handling from county to county. As the law stands now, initial decisions on exemptions by the immunization officer can be appealed to the state health officer and then to a hearing officer and then to circuit court.

Brian Skinner, general counsel for the Bureau for Public Health, told the committee that, since 2015, 141 permanent medical exemptions and 139 temporary exemptions have been granted for a total of 280 medical exemptions. He said that represents a more than 90 percent approval rate because only 29 requests have been denied, one of which later received a temporary exemption and another was determined to have proof of immunity. Of seven cases that were appealed to the state health officer, six were affirmed, and the other was overturned and a permanent exemption was granted, Skinner said. One case was appealed and resulted in an administrative hearing officer affirming the state health officer’s denial, he said. In the end, 91 percent of medical exemption requests have been granted, he said.

Charles Roskovensky, a legislative attorney, further explained that the 2015 law put the requirements for specific vaccinations into statute rather than having them just in administrative policy. Those required are for: chicken pox, hepatitis B, measles, meningitis, mumps, diphtheria, polio, rubella, tetanus and whooping cough.

Dr. Bradley Henry, a general internist, registered pharmacist and co-director of employee health at Charleston Area Medical Center, argued strongly against weakening the current law. He said West Virginia does “a very poor job” of getting children vaccinated before they enter school but much better with those of school age. “We’re fourth worst in the nation pre-school as far as vaccinations,” he said. “At the school age, we’re about 95 to 97 percent vaccination rate.”

Henry said loosening requirements for exemptions from vaccinations would hurt the children who legitimately cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.

“The problem is when you allow too many people to be exempted, then you’re putting other children at harm, especially the ones that cannot take those vaccines,” he said. “You need a certain percentage of people to take the vaccine to produce what they call a herd immunity.”

Loosening vaccination requirements can result in problems like the measles outbreak that occurred in Ohio in 2015 but did not affect West Virginia, Henry said.

“In the year 2000, we had eliminated measles from this country, but since there’s been less-stringent policies in different states, now we see anywhere from a hundred to several hundred cases of measles,” he said.

“We’re fourth worst in the nation pre-school as far as vaccinations.” – Dr. Bradley Henry

Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, suggested the increase in measles cases could be a result of immigration. Henry said immigration might play some part, but travel overseas by Americans also plays a part.

“Just for the record, I’m not against vaccinations,” Butler said. However, he added, “We need to be more sensitive to the parents and maybe try to help them more than try to hinder their efforts.”

On the other side of the issue from Henry was Dr. Alvin Moss, a Morgantown physician, who said he has recommended three medical exemptions this year and doesn’t like West Virginia’s process. In 46 other states, a physician is allowed to write a medical exemption, and it is not questioned, he said. He complained that, in West Virginia, the state health officer has no knowledge of children’s family medical histories the way their personal physicians do.

“We have the most restrictive policy with regard to medical exemptions of any state in the country.” – Dr. Alvin Moss

“We have the most restrictive policy with regard to medical exemptions of any state in the country,” Moss said. Despite that, he said, West Virginia children rank 46th in overall health.

However, Dr. Kathy Moffett, a Morgantown pediatric infectious disease specialist, countered that West Virginia children rank 46th in the nation for many factors like obesity and not anything associated with vaccines. She considers herself an expert on vaccines, but pointed out that Moss is an internist who cares for geriatric patients rather than children.

Moffett said she has had two children die of whooping cough in the last several years. One was a two-week-old child from a family of home-schooled children who did not get vaccinations. As a result, she said, the rest of the family had whooping cough and gave it to the baby.

“We have great success because we keep our population as healthy as we can against these diseases,” Moffett said, “And there are states out west where children are 13 to 20 times higher of getting pertussis because they’re not vaccinated and there’s a good, high number of their classmates [not vaccinated].”

Part of being a citizen is helping everyone else, she said, concluding that West Virginia’s current process for handling immunizations is very good.

But Holly Garrison, a chiropractor who works closely with home-schooling families, complained the state’s system deters many pediatricians from filing for exemptions because the process is so hard.

Dr. Loretta Haddy, state epidemiologist for the Bureau for Public Health, then argued that West Virginia needs a stricter immunization law than other states because it is more rural. Many people have challenges getting children to medical appointments, she said, and many areas are medically underserved.

“We are very concerned about having children appropriately immunized at the right age,” Haddy said. Because West Virginia does not require vaccinations for children before they enter school, 11percent of two-year-olds are not vaccinated.

California changed its law to be like West Virginia’s because of a huge measles outbreak that began at Disneyland, she said. California had too many children with non-medical exemptions, she said.

“I personally believe, if 46 states are allowing the physician and patient to make this decision with no major outcomes or bad outcomes, we need to go to that as well.” -- Sen. Lynne Arvon

Despite such pleas to keep the law the way it is, Sen. Lynne Arvon, R-Raleigh, made the motion to have a bill developed for the 2019 legislative session to address who can authorize medical exemptions.

“I personally believe, if 46 states are allowing the physician and patient to make this decision with no major outcomes or bad outcomes, we need to go to that as well,” she said.

The committee approved the motion on a voice vote.

The issue of vaccinations also came up in a meeting of the Joint Standing Committee on Education during a presentation on virtual school programs. Delegate Marshall Wilson, R-Berkeley, asked, “If I have a student who is in a virtual program, are they required to take all the same vaccinations as a student in a brick-and-mortar program?”

“Absolutely,” Valery Harper of the Kanawha County schools told him. “That is a state policy that all vaccinations are submitted.”

“If they’re in the virtual program only?” Wilson asked.

“Even virtual because they have to enroll in the school,” Harper said.

By Jim Wallace

Public school officials are reporting success in meeting students’ needs by providing more online courses. The Kanawha County school system has taken a leading role in developing virtual school courses for use not only by the county’s own students but also by students from other districts around the state.

Valery Harper of the Kanawha County schools told the Joint Standing Committee on Education that the legislature’s passage in 2017 of Senate Bill 630 on virtual schools has helped meet students’ needs. She said the Kanawha County school system entered into a partnership with the state Department of Education. She said Kanawha County Supt. Ron Duerring is very passionate about virtual schools and wants the program to bring students back into public education and prevent some from dropping out of school.

Since last October, Harper said, she and Gloria Burdette at the Education Department have developed many internal processes, procedures and safeguards for online courses. During the second semester of last school year, they ran a pilot program to develop high school courses and share them with other counties in West Virginia. They also secured a $100,000 Benedum Foundation grant to develop the program.

“One of our goals is we want it to be self-sustainable,” Harper said. Using the grant, they got teachers to develop courses, which meant they no longer have to lease courses developed outside West Virginia, she said.

After speaking with superintendents from other districts, Harper said, she found “there’s a lot of passion behind some of these things we’re able to do.”

One advantage she cited for virtual school courses is that they provide more flexibility. “So if we have a home-schooled student come in and they just want to take [classes] part-time, they can choose any curriculum that they want,” Harper said. “They can have fulltime or part-time [status].”

Some families in Kanawha County do it part-time and use other home-school courses the rest of the time, she said, while others do it fulltime.

“The great thing about this is now home schooled families…can participate in athletics,” Harper said. “They can participate in extracurricular activities. They get the college and career counseling by the professional person in the schools.”

“The great thing about this is now home schooled families…can participate in athletics,” Harper said. “They can participate in extracurricular activities. They get the college and career counseling by the professional person in the schools.” – Valery Harper

For example, she said, one boy has been home-schooled all his life. Last year, he enrolled as a part-time virtual school student. He wants to go into a military college and a military career. Now, he is taking Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) courses at the public school.

In addition, Harper said, he always has been on a swim team but not on the school level. Sissonville High School didn’t have a swim team, but because of the boy’s interest, one was formed this year with him and 15 others who are interested, she said. “So it’s opening up doors for some of our families as well,” she said.

Citing another example, Harper said, South Charleston enrolled a previously home-schooled student who is very interested in theater. This year, she took a theater class and will be able to participate in the school play.

“We’re also serving a population that’s always existed in our public education, and those are our kids that have always been in brick-and-mortar schools,” Harper said. Some kids need to travel, such as a U.S. Olympic gymnast who is now a public school student in the virtual program at the middle school level, she said. “We’re able to give her all the courses that are aligned to our standards,” she said, and the student can go to California for a weekend tournament and still stay abreast of her schoolwork.

Families can choose to have a child go just in the morning for three classes and do the rest of the classes virtually, Harper said. “So really what we’ve done is we’ve empowered families, and we’ve empowered students to make the best schedule for their child that is possible,” she said.

“Here’s another avenue that we’re able to save kids, and that’s what I love more than anything.” – Valery Harper

The legislation on which the virtual school program is based has opened doors, Harper said. Some kids just don’t like school or have medical needs that prevent them from attending, she said. “Here’s another avenue that we’re able to save kids, and that’s what I love more than anything,” she said.

Offering another example, Harper said, one mother is a traveling nurse who has no one to look after her kids as she leaves the state about three times a week. Now, when she’s away, the boys go with her, she said, and when she is home, they can be part of the school.

In the high school pilot program last school year, Harper said, 33 students participated, including seven who already were in the schools, and 26 who were home-schooled. That pilot helped the virtual school developers learn what needed to be changed and what should be continued, she said.

This school year, Harper said, they have allowed any high school student to be part of the virtual school program. She said they have 253 students, including 83 home-schooled students who have returned to public schools. “Altogether, we’re making a difference,” she said.

Now, she said, the pilot has expanded to the middle school level, and the demand is high. Harper said the vision is to provide virtual school programs to the whole state.

Jan Barth, senior advisor in the Office of Superintendent at the Department of Education, said the best message is that the virtual school has been able to reach nontraditional students as much as traditional students, which was a goal of the legislation.

Burdette said at least one student from each county has participated in virtual school learning over the past two years, and in some counties, hundreds have participated. She said 34 counties are working on policies under the 2017 legislation. In the meantime, students from those counties can take virtual classes on a part-time basis, she said.

“We allow them to take two classes at a time as a part-time student, so we have lots of kids all over who are taking maybe two AP classes or two classes where they need an elective,” Burdette said.

“Some counties are deciding that it’s not for them at this time, and some are kind of waiting,” she said. They want to see the results Kanawha County and other districts get.

There are about 7,500 registrations for courses statewide, Burdette said, and about 25 percent of virtual students participate in extracurricular activities.

By Jim Wallace

West Virginia University officials are working on making more educational resources available online through a virtual library, initially to benefit college students but eventually to create something for the public schools as well.

“It could save West Virginia students thousands of dollars during their tenure as college students,” Delegate Joshua Higginbotham, R-Putnam, said as the Joint Standing Committee on Education addressed the subject.

Karen Diaz, dean of libraries at WVU, said many academic libraries have been taking the lead on this issue in higher education because faculty members are busy with their courses and are approached aggressively by publishers. She said one motivation is the high cost of textbooks. The College Board has found that students nationally spend about $1,100 a year on textbooks, she said. The cost is closer to $900 at WVU, she said, “But that’s still a significant amount of money that comes out of their pocket on top of everything else they’re paying.”

“The lesson here is that the cost of textbooks is becoming an issue for academic success.” – Karen Diaz

Students receiving financial aid often don’t get it until three weeks into the semester, which could delay them in buying textbooks, Diaz said. About 70 percent of students have acknowledged that they have not bought a book for at least one course because of the cost, she said, and some take fewer courses to avoid buying the textbooks.

“The lesson here is that the cost of textbooks is becoming an issue for academic success,” Diaz said.

Open education resources, such as virtual libraries, could fill that gap, she said. Most are built by faculty who are experts in the field with funding through grants, she said, and most faculty and students think open education resources are as good as or better than textbooks. A study of student learning found no student performed worse in courses with open education resources.

Thomas Zeni, teaching assistant professor at WVU’s College of Business and Economics, said another advantage of virtual libraries is that online textbooks can be updated frequently. In surveys of students, almost all of them are positive about the experience with online textbooks, he said.

Blake Humphreys, a former student body president at WVU, said he had to buy a Biology 101 textbook that cost $250 only to find that it was rarely referred to in class. On reselling it, it brought $75 to $80, he said. By contrast, he said, the open resource equivalent is free or can be printed out.

Other states are making strategic investments in developing virtual libraries, Humphreys said. This bottom line is higher quality and lower costs, he said.

Meanwhile, Humphreys said, there is an emerging opportunity for using open education resources in kindergarten-through-12th grade education. “We’ve seen a number of states adopt various initiatives to take this on,” he said, citing Utah in particular for realizing tremendous savings.

“We’re taking the same higher education model, but we’re applying it to the K-through-12 model,” Humphreys said. “A number of states have already adopted these strategies, and they are saving taxpayers’ money and improving outcomes for learners.”

However, he said, there are some challenges. “West Virginia faces challenges with broadband and access and technology,” Humphries said. “One of the ways around that, and that was seen in Utah, is the print-on-demand [option].”

By Jim Wallace

The bill to eliminate the Department of Education and the Arts created big turmoil during the West Virginia Legislature’s regular session earlier this year, but after that bill became law, the department went away quickly and relatively quietly. Clayton Burch, who took over as acting secretary of the department in its waning weeks, reported to the Joint Standing Committee on Education that the transition was completed on June 8.

Burch, whose regular job is as associate superintendent in the Department of Education, said that Randall Reid-Smith, who had been commissioner of the Division of Culture and History, took over on that date as the curator of the Department of Arts, Culture and History, which the legislature created in a special session this spring. That new department now oversees many of the agencies that had been part of the former Department of Education and the Arts, but a few like the Educational Broadcast Authority have become independent agencies while other programs have moved to different departments. In particular, all professional development for educators, such as that formerly handled by the Center for Professional Development, has been consolidated under the Department of Education.

The transition went smoothly, Burch said, and no federal dollars or matching funds were lost in the process. He said the changes should save the state $2.6 million annually while preserving programs like the Governor’s Arts Academy, the Governor’s Internship Program,

Volunteer West Virginia (which handles Energy Express), West Virginia Humanities Council, Imagination Library, advanced placement training, national board certification training, teacher mentorship training, principal and teacher academies and professional development schools.

“It was about efficiency. For most of us over there that went through this, it was about taking a really good look internally at the bureaucracy there and to realign it.” – Clayton Burch

When Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, challenged Burch to explain what was accomplished by the transition, Burch replied, “It was about efficiency. For most of us over there that went through this, it was about taking a really good look internally at the bureaucracy there and to realign it.”

For example, he said, instead of having professional development handled in two or three places, it has been streamlined.

The committee also heard from Jan Barth, senior advisor to state Supt. Steve Paine, who said five school districts have expressed interest in switching to using the ACT as the annual summative assessment test. That would be a switch from the SAT, which won a bid to become the state’s choice for the annual test. Barth said it might take until the 2019-2020 school year to make the ACT available to districts wanting it. She didn’t say how much that would cost but said the SAT costs $51 per pupil.


Editor’s Note – Jim Wallace is a former government reporter for the Charleston 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.