Department of Education releases cumulative report for legislative session

68

By Sarah Richardson

The West Virginia Department of Education has released the West Virginia’s Voice Education Reform report, which captures public input of more than 20,000 West Virginians to help inform the special legislative session. Representatives listened to opinions from around the state, including in Greenbrier County, at town hall forum meetings where teachers, students, and citizens were able to discuss their personal experiences with the education system in the state and give their thoughts.

The document states, ”It is apparent more needs to be done to address the consequences of poverty and the opioid crisis on West Virginia’s children. Public schools carry much of the burden created by abuse, neglect and household dysfunction. As a result, school staffs need additional resources ranging from increased personnel and mental health services, to support students and faculty impacted by the toxic stress they encounter daily. Progress moving forward will be significantly impeded if this crisis is not aggressively addressed.”

This echoes a large majority of the statements presented by the public in Greenbrier County from a local town hall forum. Many teachers discussed the difficulty of teaching children who have much bigger problems to deal with at home.

The report goes on to discuss teacher pay, arguing that providing adequate pay and competitive benefits will allow West Virginia to recruit and retain “the best talent” in our classrooms. “West Virginia teachers currently rank 49th nationally in teacher pay and a majority of participants viewed increased compensation for school employees as a worthwhile investment,” the document states.

The report highlights what the top priorities are, and makes recommendations on how to address the main topics of concern. Some of the key items named include providing a pay raise to all school employees, increasing funding for social and emotional supports with local flexibility, incentivizing high-performing schools by providing additional options, and funding supplements that strengthen teachers’ skills in shortage areas with an initial focus on math.

The state wants to increase compensation for school employees, without imposing negative consequences through personnel cuts or increased employee benefit costs, and develop a routine statutory increase to account for heightened cost-of-living and inflation, all while communicating the amount of any compensation increase in terms that are easily understood.

To ensure that smaller schools aren’t left behind, the report recommends instituting a funding floor at the level of 1,400 students to ensure that county school districts with low enrollments can provide an adequate education. This action will protect local community schools and their ability to maintain high-quality services for students in school districts with low student enrollments.

For funding issues, they recommend maximizing the use of “school aid funding formula flexibility” to meet individual county and school needs. They also want to provide additional funding to account for the cost differences of various populations (e.g., early childhood, special education and court ordered placements, etc.), and develop processes that assure school-level input from administrators and teachers regarding budgeting, selection of resources, and services used in each school.

The underlying concern remains on how to recruit teachers to the state, and the report  proposes funding service scholarships for teacher preparation students who fill shortages and commit to work in West Virginia for 3 to 5 years.

The idea of charter schools was also addressed, and the report states that, “Most participants reported opposition to the creation of charter schools in West Virginia while simultaneously reporting a strong desire to be free from state and local rules and regulations.”

“Specifically, there was concern West Virginia’s population density in rural areas of the state would struggle to support charter schools, particularly when some counties are struggling to support their current public schools,” the report adds. “Forum attendees in larger, more urban areas did not share this concern to the degree of some participants of the smaller rural areas.”

If a “limited number” of charter schools are authorized, the state wishes to place their oversight with the appropriate local board of education, prohibit for-profit schools and management companies, prohibit virtual charter schools, report Balanced Scorecard results for charter schools, require the use of random lottery for oversubscribed schools to ensure open access to all students, require public charter schools to provide services to students with disabilities, develop minimum level of qualifications for charter school educators, and evaluate successes of pilot charter schools for potential extension of the same flexibilities to traditional public schools. These restrictions focus on balancing public schools and charter schools to prevent inequalities between the two, while also ensuring that charter schools don’t have “free reign” in areas like educator qualifications.

Another hot topic was ESAs, or Education Savings Accounts, with the overall recommendation stating, “Do not implement ESAs due to public concerns over fraud, lack of accountability and concentration of benefits to higher-income families.” ESAs are intended to provide funding for parents that education their children in a nonpublic school setting.

The document reads, “There would be less accountability for those receiving funds through ESAs. Many participants stated that irresponsible parents could spend money on things unrelated to education and enroll their student in public school mid-year. The school would not have received the per-pupil allocation and would have to address lost instructional time. For this reason, participants suggested that tax incentives may be more palatable.”

However, as tense as things sound at times, West Virginia has much to celebrate. “Our students routinely demonstrate they can compete and succeed on a national stage alongside their peers in various competitions, scholarships and programs reinforcing that West Virginia’s education system is not broken.”

View the full report here: https://wvde.us/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Education-Forum-Final-Report.pdf.