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Doug Reynolds: Educational reform needs to be priority

Oct. 13, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of a series of columns written by candidates in contested races in the Nov. 6 general election.

Over the last three terms, I have had the opportunity to serve in the House of Delegates on the Finance Committee. It has been a great honor, and I appreciate all of your support. Since over half of our state budget goes to assist public schools and universities, we should put a large emphasis on how this money is being spent.

Last session, a consultant group completed an audit of our educational system and made specific recommendations on how to curb many of the flaws and redundancies in the Department of Education. That audit can be found online at http://www.governor.wv.gov/initiatives/satf/Documents/WVDE%20Report%20Final.pdf.

This audit lays out many of the basic inefficiencies of the Department of Education, namely ways that our hard-earned tax money could be used more effectively.

One of the greatest frustrations I have experienced in Charleston is that sometimes a program's political life can extend far beyond its practical life. The Department of Education's Cedar Lakes Conference Center is an apt example of that dichotomy. The land was given to the state in 1950 to use as a facility for teacher development. Compared to today, I imagine there were fewer private conference centers available in 1950, which is why its existence was necessary in the '50s -- a facility that provides an opportunity for our state's teachers to convene and grow as educators. But, is such a facility cost-effective in 2012?

Many of the teachers I have spoken with have never even been to Cedar Lakes, and the few who have expressed disappointment with the facilities. Why is the state throwing away over $1 million every year on maintaining a facility that doubles as a catering facility to the general public? Isn't that money better suited elsewhere?

What's more, how much time are the 951 employees who work in the Department of Education (96 of which make more than $80,000 a year) spending on Cedar Lakes instead of crafting policy to improve the educational achievements of our students?

The audit (cowardly) recommends that all of the schools in West Virginia should be forced to use this facility, merely as a way to justify its existence. But even that "solution" is insufficient. Forcing principles to hold their school's training sessions hours away from home is a burden and a waste. This facility should be transferred to and run by business professionals. Take the Division of Natural Resources, for example, they run similar facilities with a profit at many of our state resorts.

While resizing and refocusing the Department of Education is a factor in improving our schools, that alone is not sufficient. As a parent of children who attend public school, I am constantly impressed with the incredible efforts of our teachers. However, we all know that the quality of education differs greatly throughout the classrooms across the state. Please visit the Department of Education's website (wvde.state.wv.us) and peruse the school performance data.

Unfortunately, this data is presented in a manner that obfuscates rather than educates parents about the performance of our schools. For one, the benchmark is the West Virginia state average, which would be wonderful if our state was not in the bottom 10 percent of most achievement criteria. We should be benchmarking ourselves against the best school districts in the entire country. Our kids deserve the best, and if someone else is doing it better, we should ask why? Also, the data should be broken down by grade, class size and the number of special needs students, as well as the number of aides and support professionals allotted to each classroom. Too often our schools set teachers up to fail by not giving them the support they need, a problem that is compounded when classrooms are overloaded with students, making it impossible for each student to receive the attention they need and deserve, particularly the ones with special needs.

Accountability, high expectations and parental engagement are the hallmarks of an educational reform agenda we should demand to ensure that our children receive the education they deserve (and the one that we all pay for).

Doug Reynolds, a resident of Huntington, is a Democratic candidate for the West Virginia House of Delegates from the 17th District, which includes parts of Cabell and Wayne counties.

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