Opinion

February 14, 2019 - Volume 39 Issue 6

Commentary

  Opinion

Chairman Hamrick, Vice Chairman Dean, members of the House Education Committee I am Lori Kestner. I am a member and past president of the Marshall County Board of Education. I am serving as president of the West Virginia School Board Association which represents each of the 55 county boards in this state and 275 county boards of education members.

In addition to the House Education leadership, we want to thank Speaker Hanshaw for making this a very open, accessible process.

I am pleased to present some thoughts we have regarding Senate Bill 451.

As you know several county boards of education adopted resolutions in opposition to this legislation – that is, the Senate-passed bill.

The House Committee has made several revisions in the Senate Bill which we believe will improve public education in West Virginia.

There is no surprise that we primarily opposed the legislation for two primary reasons: Charter Schools and Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). Our members found both troubling, particularly ESAs.

As I understand ESA provisions have been removed from the House version of this bill. ESAs were troubling in terms of not only fiscal impact on West Virginia’s school system but also regarding accountability and even considerations such as how IEPs would be affected.

Charter schools, which the association opposes, is somewhat trickier. Most of the expressed opposition to charter schools is framed around  issues such as “‘charter schools won’t work in rural West Virginia’; ‘charter schools have spotty academic performance’; ‘charter schools are designed to serve the best and brightest’; ‘charter schools lack transparency’; and, something now being heard, ‘charter schools will affect the passage of county board excess levies and bonds.’” Passage of excess levies or bonds prove to matters affected by numerous factors and, indeed, charter schools might be a factor due to their nature within the county school system.

“The greater issue is summed up in one word: Charter. These schools’ charters create state-sanctioned exclusive schools, sometimes using public funds and placed by legislative mandate within a public school district without county board or voter agreement, whereas the public school system guarantees every student access to a thorough and efficient means of public education.” – Lori Kestner

Of course, there are strands of truth to these expressions of opposition to charter schools. The greater issue is summed up in one word: Charter. These schools’ charters create state-sanctioned exclusive schools, sometimes using public funds and placed by legislative mandate within a public school district without county board or voter agreement, whereas the public school system guarantees every student access to a thorough and efficient means of public education. All students have access as the central consideration. Additionally, in that charter schools in terms of these proposals,are public schools per se, think of the myriad difficulties county school administrations may or will encounter in efforts to ensure these schools meet various standards, including academic standards.

Of course, like charter schools, quality varies among county boards, inside county school systems or even within schools. As state Board of Education member Debra Sullivan writes in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, public schools reflect the fabric of the communities in which they are  located. Public schools are not immune – or isolated like charter schools might be – from the dynamic of changing communities, communities torn by poverty, by aging populations, by general decline of social structures and, often, safety nets for students. 

The notion to innovate using Innovation Zones, as I understand it, or magnet schools is a good, but must be underwritten by adequate funding, training by school administrators as to the importance of Innovation Zones and communication to Local School Improvement Councils (LSICs) and the public of their importance.

The question one must ask is whether Innovation Zones will lead to change…

“...there is a need to ensure Innovation Zones are just that: geared to innovate in a way that is rigorous, that seeks quantifiable measures to determine success and receives funding only if schools demonstrate reasonable probability in demonstrating capacities for successes.” – Lori Kestner

If this concept is approved by the Senate, we believe there is a need to ensure Innovation Zones are just that: geared to innovate in a way that is rigorous, that seeks quantifiable measures to determine success and receives funding only if schools demonstrate reasonable probability in demonstrating capacities for successes. Innovation Zones will end where they did, lacking policymaker support for funding continuation if we don’t take this route. Indeed, it will be difficult for a school to become an Innovation Zone if its plans aren’t research-based and truly geared toward change.

In fact, one point we would like to make is to commend the Legislature for its efforts to improve our schools. Through this process, we believe, the Legislature has discovered public education change is slow if not incremental at best because of all the interests either involving themselves in the process or wanting to be involved. In simple terms, and as I believe one Delegate commented regarding this legislation, study – ample study – would have provided greater ease in lawmakers fashioning this bill.

This involvement makes for meaningful process, but will it promote lasting change? Again, if there is proper input from those affected, including parents and communities, of course.

That is my first question.

Secondly, with declining school populations and resources, we have come to a place where we must assess the best ways to provide quality schooling. The bill, in fact, has several fiscal steps which accomplish this. In the next few years, how can we continue to provide a thorough and efficient system of schooling, as we face relentless student population losses in some of our most economically vulnerable counties? We are studying this issue and have for the past several years. The answers are not easy; are not simple.

“...leadership capacity is a major issue facing our school system – fewer persons becoming principals; many county superintendents having little or no administrative experience; and school systems adrift because county district leadership often lacks leadership capacity, including the leadership capacity, to provide county boards the information, including research-based information, to move systems forward.” – Lori Kestner

Third, we discuss county board flexibility. The Senate and House bills provide flexibility in many ways. We appreciate this but acknowledge leadership capacity is a major issue facing our school system – fewer persons becoming principals; many county superintendents having little or no administrative experience; and school systems adrift because county district leadership often lacks leadership capacity, including the leadership capacity, to provide county boards the information, including research-based information, to move systems forward.

That may be aside from this bill, but the reality is implementation so that county boards can operate effectively based on county superintendent leadership.

Lastly, legislation adopted in 2013 allows a school district itself to become and district-wide Innovation Zone.

We have a proposal to strengthen that legislation so that, along with Innovation Zones or magnet schools, entire districts can innovate. Simply put, the process outlined in Code is cumbersome – literally dissuading county boards from taking this step.

We studied the idea of seeing whether legislators would revamp that bill this year and, if venues permit, will do so. 

I would like to close by paraphrasing a recent PBS show regarding Fred Roger of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood:

What West Virginia children are adults who can make decisions for them that will assure each child is offered a successful life. If those who have the power to make those decisions do not focus on that one goal not only will our kids fail but also our great Mountain State.

We can do better. 

On behalf of the association, thank you for your time, your effort and your commitment to making our schools and school systems better. We pledge to work with you and, together, forge a united agenda.

Thank you.

 

Editor’s Note: In that there were 85 speakers at Monday’s public hearing, which was held in the House of Delegates Chamber, each presenter was provided 70 seconds for remarks.  Kestner concentrated on the topic of charter schools. A copy of these prepared remarks were provided to the House Finance Committee upon request of Chairman Eric L. Householder, R-Berkeley.