The West Virginia State Senate has passed its latest attempt at a comprehensive education reform bill. It replaces the omnibus bill the Senate approved during the regular session earlier this year but which died in a House of Delegates committee.
The Senate bill has many provisions and makes several changes to the state's education laws. Here is a review of seven of them:
n Raises for school employees. This is as close to a no-brainer as the Legislature can get. The raises were promised last fall by Republican leaders, just ahead of the general election, but the Legislature did not approve them in the regular session. This bill fulfills a promise that was made.
n Differential pay. County boards would be allowed to pay teachers in certain subject areas or certain geographic areas more than what other teachers receive. This makes sense. If you need to attract more math teachers, you pay them more. If border counties bleed teachers to neighboring states, they need to be able to pay their good teachers more (and let the less effective ones go).
n Open enrollment. Students would be able to cross county lines to enroll in another school without the permission of the school board in the county where they live. This sounds good in theory - school choice is a worthy idea - but if this goes through, you can expect to hear complaints about sports recruiting as athletes try to jump from one high school to another. Considering how important athletics are to some people, this section could be removed.
n Class time. This changes the amount of time students receive instruction. The current standard requires a minimum number of instructional minutes per day. This changes that to an average of five hours per day. The result in most cases would be less time spent in instruction.
Does this really need to be written into state law? Or would it be better off as a policy written and enforced by the state Board of Education? The thinking here is the second.
n Counselors. Counselors would have to increase their time spent in direct student counseling to 80%, up from the current 75%. This is another instance of micromanaging by the Legislature. It should be dropped.
n Strikes. County superintendents could not close schools in anticipation of a strike. Striking employees would not be paid for the days they are on strike. Employees could be fired for striking. Extracurricular activities scheduled for days schools are closed by strikes would be canceled.
Some of this is reasonable. If schools are closed because of a strike, there should be no extracurricular activities, including sports.
Not paying teachers or other employees for days they are on strike sounds reasonable, but firing them seems to go too far. The House will need to ask some questions on this part.
n Charter schools. This part is complicated and needs more study than has been given to it. The interim committee meetings would be the best time for proponents and opponents of charter schools to air their opinions in public and allow legislators to ask questions. Until there is more examination and more debate, this part should be dropped.
After all this, there is one more question: How much of this improves the quality of education a student receives? If this entire package were to pass, would the education received by a graduating senior be improved over what is available now? At first glance, the answer is probably not.
This bill is a laundry list of changes that fail to address the real problems facing West Virginia's public education system.
The House has a lot of work to do with this bill.