Q&A: Rank-And-File Reactions to W.Va. Dept. of Ed. Reform Report
Jenny Craig is a special education teacher in Ohio County, the president of the Ohio County Education Association, and steering committee member for the West Virginia United Caucus. She offered reactions to the state Department of Education's 33-page report titled West Virginia’s Voice that was released last week.
The report presents education reform ideas collected from a series of forums held around the state.
The department concludes that “West Virginia’s education system is not broken,” but identifies four priorities for improving public education:
- increasing pay for all school employees,
- increasing funding for mental health professionals,
- incentivizing high-performing schools by providing local flexibility to explore educational innovations, and
- funding supplemental pay for shortage areas, especially math instruction.
The report also indicated most participants were opposed to both charter schools and educational saving accounts.
***Editor's Note: The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
Tell us about the meetings that you've attended and what they were like.
I have attended multiple meetings hosted by the State Department of Education, by the West Virginia Education Association, and then by various senators and delegates across the Northern Panhandle. And one, common, underlying theme is the overwhelming support for increased mental health care in our schools. Smaller class sizes was another thing that people overwhelmingly were in support of. In addition to that, raising educator and service personnel pay so we can attract and keep quality school service personnel and teachers in our state; we are $14,000 lower than the national average. And also coming up with a funding source, a progressive funding source for PEIA. Those were the top concerns, voiced by not just educators, but by parents and community members. Those are things that West Virginians not just teachers across the state have overwhelmingly said.
Was the overall report what you expected based on the experiences that you had?
It was really no surprise. These are the things that we have continually said since the beginning of the session, and in fact, before this session. The West Virginia United Caucus hosted a State of the School's walk-in, where we highlighted the state of our schools, how severely underfunded we are in regards to mental health care for our students amidst the opioid crisis that we have here in our state, and how we, you know, have a need for smaller class sizes. We need to do those things before we look to defend or to privatize in any form in West Virginia. And so it really wasn't surprising. Those results were exactly what teachers, parents, community members have been saying throughout the state, both before the session during the session, through the two day walk out that we had, and through the forums that I attended.
We hear a lot that West Virginia schools are broken and that they need to be fixed. One of the findings of the report was that that's certainly not the perception among the public, perhaps, and may not be the reality. Why do you think it is that that this is an idea that is being passed around so freely?
Yes, we do have shortcomings. And that is mostly due to the mental health crisis that it's facing our students. One in four of our students experience an adverse psychological trauma. Our schools just aren't equipped to meet their needs. But if you look at what we are providing our students, we are not failing our students, the system is. Yes, we can do a lot better job at providing mental health services, smaller class sizes for our students. But this myth that our schools are failing has been continually perpetuated.
We need to really understand and recognize that test scores are grossly manipulated by groups like the [American Legislative Exchange Council] and by groups on the right to make our schools look like they're failing. But if you look at West Virginia's National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing scores, 75 percent to 86 percent of West Virginia students who took the NAEP test, were eligible for the national school lunch category -- so free and reduced lunch. When you compare that to other states, students in the same category as West Virginia, here are West Virginia's actual rankings:
We rank in fourth grade math, fifth-highest in the nation; in fourth grade reading, second highest in the nation; in eighth grade math, 27th in the nation; and an eighth grade reading, 15th in the nation.
So if you look at the types of students, the abject poverty that we have, the opioid crisis that's crippling our state, and the lack of mental health care, and then you use that data and you compare it similarly to other states, we are actually performing quite well. This myth that is perpetuated that West Virginia is always last just simply isn't true. It's a gross manipulation of the data.
We saw reactions recently from Senate President Mitch Carmichael to the Department of Education's report. He cast doubt on findings by pointing out that survey results did not represent an accurate scientific sample. What's your response to that line of thought, and the idea that essentially his plan is to continue to support ideas about charter schools and other forms of privatization?
It's really no surprise that leaders such as Carmichael, such as Patricia Rucker, who is the Senate education chair, are continuing to push their agenda. We knew before this, we knew before the session, during the session, as a direct result of the two-day, school service personnel and teacher walk out that overwhelmingly, the people of West Virginia are against any method sort of privatization. But it's really no surprise, even giving the overwhelming response of West Virginians that they continue to push their agenda. To think that they're going to back down from their position easily, would be really under estimating the dark money that is being poured into privatization measures, not just in West Virginia, and through groups like ALEC, but across the nation. There's been a nationwide push to increase privatization despite many states, not just West Virginia, and major cities, LA, Oakland, really pushing back and fighting back against measures of privatization because of what charter schools, vouchers, education savings accounts have done in their states. This is this is a pattern, unfortunately, we have seen ripple across the United States. And it's because of the dark money that is really poured into that. We can never fight that with money. We don't have the dark money that ALEC has, or that a lot of these groups that are funding this have.
But we do have people power. We can show up, again, in Charleston, and we can rally our teachers and our school service personnel and our parents. And eventually, hopefully, they'll start listening to the people of West Virginia. And I guess, time will tell as we as we head into the special session.
You mentioned the West Virginia United Caucus. Can you describe that group for us?
The West Virginia United Caucus formed directly after the school service personnel and educator walk-out last year in 2018. We are a rank-and-file group of union members from all three of our associations: West Virginia Education Association, the AFT West Virginia, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association. So we are rank-and-file members who subscribe to the belief that we need to continue to build on the grassroots movement that we recognized brought us real true power to make lasting changes. We also support solidarity unionism, and democratic unionism. And we also push for social justice issues surrounding not just ourselves, but our students and our classrooms. So we have throughout this session, continued to organize walk-ins, and information campaigns, we produce a ton of infographics that help educate the public of what privatization and vouchers particularly have done. We've done a tremendous amount of research on ALEC and ALEC's ties to our legislators here in West Virginia and what that means for West Virginians, when outside interests take over and try to push their agenda and their legislation. We've been working really hard at just continuing that momentum. And really continuing and building on that grassroots movement to try to get the schools that that we know our students, our children and West Virginia really do deserve.
I want to push back a little bit because when we talk about charter schools it's often presented in very black-and-white, for-or-against language. But the reality is that there are many different types of charter schools, there are nonprofit schools, and for-profit chains. Is it possible that some form of experimentation in this way could help improve the system that exists?
No, absolutely, I don't think so. I don't think that we can afford to experiment on West Virginia's children. I feel that our schools are already severely underfunded to meet our students mental, emotional and health needs. And we need to put that time and effort into enhancing our public schools. In a CREDO study released in 2019, it was revealed that the overall performance of charter schools in rural areas: 41 days of math instruction were lost, 94 days of reading learning were lost. If you look at charter schools and special education students with that same study -- again, this is a 2019 Stanford University CREDO study -- the average of 65 math instructional days were lost and 89 reading instructional days were lost. And so that data is out there. And we've done our homework. We know that with the severe needs that we do have in our schools, and the growing needs that we have in our schools, we can't afford to take some of those successes that you can pick out in charter schools across the country and experiment with West Virginia's children. We'd like to instead see more increased funding, again, for mental health care, for smaller class sizes, also for vocational and technical education programs starting at a much younger level in our middle schools.
And so instead of pushing measures of privatization, let's put our time and our effort and our money there. Make sure that we have adequate nursing in all of our schools. Many of our schools, even here in the Northern Panhandle, share a nurse with two, three, sometimes even four schools. And we have growing medical needs. We have more food allergies than we ever have, students that are insulin-dependent diabetics, students with seizure disorders -- just a just a vast array of medical health issues. And we're really doing a poor job at meeting those needs. So before we move towards any measures of privatization, we first have to make sure that our public schools are providing the best free and appropriate public education for our students.
Any thoughts that you have for other teachers and other parts of the state, or messages from those folks?
I think that we need to be reminded of the true power and solidarity that we have recognized and come to realize that we really all have. I think that we need to continue to stand strong for our students, for our public schools, for our profession for the future of West Virginia schools. We know as educators and service personnel, we're on the front lines. We know schools are the hubs of our communities. We know that we provide much more than academic instruction, that we provide social and emotional and behavioral support for our students, that we that we provide nursing care, medical care, food, clothing, and showers oftentimes, and that we cannot give up, that we need to continue to fight. It's hard. It's exhausting. We're all exhausted, especially this time of year. But we need to continue to stand strong and fight for the public education, and fight for the future of West Virginia, which are in our classrooms every day.
Here in West Virginia, there is a strong labor history. Does that inform your strategies moving forward?
I think prior to West Virginia teachers and school service personnel walking out last spring, much of that was not thought of or lost. And there's been a real resurgence of the labor movement, and a real reflection on our history of West Virginians. I think that's exceptionally important to keep in mind. The people who have come before us had very tough struggles, much tougher struggles. And if coal miners who have come before us and led the way can look into the face of absolute inequality and tremendous violence against them for standing up for and fighting back for what's right, then we can continue to be inspired to do that as well.