Two takes on education reform this term

CHARLESTON – Delegates Tiffany Lawrence and Paul Espinosa, who both serve on the House Education Committee, agree that education reforms that appear poised to become law during this legislative session has not gone far enough toward addressing the state’s underperforming education system.

Espinosa said he sees this as a major missed opportunity.

“I think there was an opportunity to take a big swing at education, and enact some really meaningful change,” Espinosa said. “What we enacted, I think it’s a step in the right direction, but I think, ultimately, that it wasn’t the bold education reform that a lot of folks, including myself, had hoped for.”

“We are fifth or sixth in terms of education funding per student, but we are 49th in results,” Espinosa said. “It’s not that we aren’t making the investment. We just aren’t getting the return on that investment.”

Lawrence, on the other hand, hopes that the governor’s education bill, along with a handful of other bills introduced by herself and other lawmakers, might lay the groundwork for more sweeping action.

“I think it is sort of the first step in a series of steps that we need to be taking,” Lawrence said. “The thing that I thought came from it is the facilitation of so many community conversations. We saw folks like the state Chamber of Commerce getting involved in the education arena because they are worried about having a well-qualified and well-educated workforce. That hasn’t happened in the past.

“I think opening the door for those other groups to be involved and proactive in the process has been a great initial step.”

Both lawmakers agree that a major unaddressed problem, one which was prominently raised by the 2012 audit of the education system ordered by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, is the level of bureaucracy in the state school system along with a lack of control at the local level.

“We are just really top heavy,” Espinosa said. “If you look at the education audit, one of the things they point out, is just the enormous bureaucracy at the state level. West Virginia has the second highest ratio of bureaucracy of students in the nation.”

While the bill does involve a 10-percent total reduction in state-level personnel funding over the next two years, he said he is disappointed that a GOP floor amendment that would have mandated that the state reduce the “student to bureaucrat” ratio to one to 2,000 by 2016– a more-than 50 percent staff reduction – failed.

“I don’t think that we have eliminated bureaucracy in any sense,” Lawrence agreed.

She said she holds out some hope for the transfer of some powers from the state to the regional level, but says only time will tell how effective that will be. “I’m not so sure we didn’t just take (the bureaucracy) out of Charleston and place it elsewhere,” she said.

Nonetheless, Lawrence sees what she thinks of as several key increases in teacher and local control that she says will be major steps forward.

“I think a lot of what happens in the bill will help move control back to teachers in the classroom,” she said, adding that the bill included a number of incremental reforms she had advocated for years, including giving teachers a say in new hiring decisions.

Lawrence said she also hopes that House Bill 3157, a bill she wrote that is currently waiting to be taken up in the Senate, will help to further increase local control over schools. That bill contains around 30 amendments to various sections of the West Virginia Code.

“It repeals a lot of antiquated legislation that prevents local control,” she said.

The bill, among many other things, would require the state Board of Education to identify needless reporting requirements that could be eliminated to reduce the administrative burden on schools. It would also allow school systems to bring chronically truant students under the supervision of circuit court probation officers and would put an increased emphasis on hiring technology-oriented school personnel.

Espinosa said the key step that remains undone is to return more money from the state to the local level, investing less in the top-heavy state. “The number one thing you can do to improve student outcomes is to have a qualified teacher in the classroom,” he said.

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