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Editorial: Tomblin's extra focus on education is right message

Jan. 16, 2013 @ 11:40 PM

In his inauguration speech on Monday, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin laid out few specifics regarding what he hopes to accomplish in a second term.

In broad strokes, he talked about preserving coal-industry jobs and fostering other economic growth, battling substance abuse and helping West Virginia families. All are worthwhile goals.

However, on one topic -- education -- he did provide a few more details about what he would like to see happen during the next four years to make "sure our children are prepared and ready to have a successful career in the 21st Century economy."

He spoke of giving West Virginia students a good start so that by third grade they've mastered basic skills, vocational training programs aligned to the economy's needs, teacher education programs suited to today's world, adequate instructional time for students, more innovation in schools, and parents taking more responsibility for their children's learning.

All of those basic goals form a solid vision, one that appears to be along the same lines as many of the recommendations spelled out in a $750,000 education audit that Tomblin commissioned and was delivered by consultants a year ago this month.

Considering how much the governor has at stake in spending so much taxpayers' money on a blueprint to improve the state's education system, it seemed appropriate that he would devote a little extra attention in his speech to champion improvements in the state's schools. But the governor also will need to bring all of his leadership skills to bear in the next few months so that the state can move forward on many of the audit's recommendations.

Generally, the audit described a low-performing education system rigidly controlled by state bureaucrats and a host of policy-directing laws. The report includes more than 100 recommendations aimed at refocusing resources on student achievement while saving an estimated $70 million a year. It suggested that the state's Department of Education was bloated and should be streamlined.

Adopting many of the audit's recommendations won't be easy, what with so many stakeholders -- legislators, teachers and their union representatives, state education officials, business interests and parents -- bringing their own perspectives to the discussion.

But after a year, it is time for action, particularly with the start of the 2013 legislative session less than a month away. Many of the audit's recommendations will require legislative action.

As Tomblin noted, despite a funding level for education that is among the best in the country, student achievement is falling behind. Most education rankings confirm this. Even a recent report by Education Week that gave West Virginia one of the nation's best overall grades for its education standards and policies couldn't avoid the obvious. It gave the state a grade of "F" on student achievement.

Many will say that West Virginia schools face more obstacles than in most states because it has a larger percentage of low-income households, which means that children in those households generally face a tougher road to success. But some other states with just as high a percentage of low-income residents have shown that student achievement can be improved. And the demographics of our state shouldn't be accepted as an excuse; it should be a reason to try that much harder.

Now is the time to try. Tomblin made that clear in his inauguration day remarks, and now it's up to him and other stakeholders to work together to seriously tackle this long-standing problem. Skirting the issue and failing to take any significant steps just won't do any more.

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