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Gov. Tomblin's education overhaul bill introduced

Feb. 25, 2013 @ 11:54 PM

CHARLESTON -- Student achievement, the school calendar, and teacher hiring and development are the key topics of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's sprawling bid to overhaul West Virginia's public education system, introduced Monday in the state Senate and House of Delegates.

With the Senate Education Committee beginning its review of the 179-page bill on Tuesday, groups representing teachers, school workers and administrators were largely critical of its provisions. Supporters include the state Chamber of Commerce.

"To us, this looks like a bill that all West Virginians should embrace," Chamber President Steve Roberts said. "We think the governor's bill is a huge leap in the direction of student-centered learning, putting student needs first."

Public schools statewide would begin offering full-day early education to 4-year-olds by the 2016-2017 school year under the bill, in a quest to boost reading levels by grade three. It also requires standards by the 2014-2015 year for measuring whether high school juniors are ready either for college or a vocational-technical career. Schools would then offer remedial courses to students identified through testing during their senior years.

"The standards shall be clearly linked to state content standards and based on skills and competencies rather than high school course titles," the legislation says.

The teachers' unions praised the early childhood learning initiative, but Judy Hale, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, singled out language allowing for new end-of-coursework testing for the college and career readiness standard.

"We're just spending so many days preparing for student testing and then doing the testing," Hale said Monday. "Students and teachers are inundated with tests."

The 55 county school systems would keep basic oversight of their school calendars, while still aiming to provide at least 180 days of instruction. As most counties chronically miss that target, Monday's bill removes limits on the 12 days set aside for such purposes as professional development, teacher-parent conferences, and opening and closing schools. It would allow for year-round calendars, currently followed by a handful of public schools. A county's calendar-setting process must also include at least two public meetings.

Both Hale and Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, challenged this approach to the school calendar. Both believe it comes at the expense of collaboration time for teachers, with Hale questioning whether it would strip educators of paid holidays.

The teacher unions also each decried the proposal allowing Teach for America to recruit for West Virginia's classrooms. The nonprofit group sends graduates of top colleges to high-needs public schools for two-year terms, and says it has 10,000 teachers in 36 states. Tomblin administration officials say that 15 West Virginians are taking part in Teach for America but cannot be assigned to the state under current law.

The governor's bill offers a route for program participants to stay once they've completed their term, while dropping the requirement that teachers need a bachelor's degree in a discipline offered in the public schools. Hale said Tomblin should instead encourage a new, alternative path to teaching focused on West Virginia graduates that recently passed the Legislature.

County school boards must consider hiring recommendations from both principals and faculty senates, as part of the bill's revamping of the hiring process.

Lee also sharply criticized provisions in the bill that downplay the role that seniority plays in teacher hiring practices. The bill eliminates the seven criteria in state code that are used to hire teachers and groups the profession with the six hiring criteria used for all other professional positions in state government. Seniority would be added as a consideration.

"No one has shown me that the current hiring system doesn't get the most qualified teacher in the position," Lee said. "What this does is play on the misconception that seniority is the only criteria in hiring and it's not."

Delegate Doug Reynolds, D-Cabell, who is part of a bipartisan panel in the House that has delved into a wide-ranging education audit released in January 2012, said while seniority may not be the only hiring criteria for teachers, it has become the overriding factor in interpretations of existing state law by the courts and grievance processes afforded to teachers.

"I do think that merit as it relates to teacher selection is going to have to be weighted more in one form or another," Reynolds said.

Tomblin's bill would also expand the Underwood-Smith Teacher Scholarship so it helps teachers with loans if they serve in either subject areas or parts of the state with critical shortages. The expansion would help a qualifying teacher repay up to $2,000 a year for a maximum of $15,000.

The legislation follows the education audit, which contrasted West Virginia's multibillion-dollar annual spending on public schools with poor rankings for student performance.

Senate Education Chairman Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, said he and his staff plowed through the bill Monday to learn more about its provisions.

"It's fairly comprehensive in nature and follows a three-pronged approach," he said. That includes the state Board of Education setting policies, the governor issuing executive orders for certain initiatives and the Legislature amending laws, he said.

The Senate Education Committee will begin studying the bill Tuesday, Feb. 26, and will continue that process through early next week. The committee is not expected to vote on the bill until March 7, Plymale said.

"Even though we've tackled elements of this bill in the past, we've never had something quite as comprehensive as this," he said. "We're not going to rush it."

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