A new report on public education in West Virginia could be a roadmap for lawmakers who are set to focus on improving the state’s system. The report comes after a long, sweeping and controversial education reform bill was rejected by the state Legislature earlier this year -- a measure that caused public school workers to walk off the job for two days.
The West Virginia Department of Education released the report Tuesday -- just weeks ahead of an expected special legislative session. The 33-page report, titled West Virginia’s Voice, takes into consideration a series of forums held around the state in recent months, as well as responses to an online survey and additional comments.
“While all agree there is work to be done, West Virginia has much to celebrate,” the report states. “Our students routinely demonstrate they can compete and succeed on a national stage alongside their peers in various competitions, scholarships and programs reinforcing that West Virginia’s education system is not broken.”
Data collected for the report were contributed by 1,630 people who attended eight forums and 17,010 students, family members and educators who took part in an online survey. Additionally, the Department of Education received 2,586 comment cards.
Based on that input, the state Department of Education has identified four top priorities for improving public education:
- increase pay for all school employees
- increase funding for social emotional supports with local flexibility
- incentivize high-performing schools by providing additional flexibility
- fund supplemental pay for teachers’ skills in shortage areas, especially math
Teacher, School Service Personnel Raises
After teachers and school service personnel scored an average five percent pay increase during the 2018 legislative session, Gov. Jim Justice and leaders of the Republican-held state House and Senate announced -- just before the 2018 midterm election -- their intent to provide another round of raises.
During the 2019 legislative session, that promised failed to come to fruition, as the additional, average five percent pay raises were tied to Senate Bill 451, which failed to pass.
Despite the inclusion of those pay increases in the bill, teachers, service personnel and the leaders of their unions fought against the measure -- most notably targeting provisions such as charter schools, education savings accounts, the annual signing off of their union dues to be deducted from their paychecks and how seniority would play a role in deciding layoffs in the event of a reduction in force.
Although separate legislation focused only on school employee pay raises also failed to pass, lawmakers earmarked funds for those hikes in the upcoming state budget in anticipation of its passage before July 1.
Tuesday’s report from the Department of Education affirmed the public’s support of increases in pay for teachers and other school workers. According to the report, 77 percent of respondents said they support those raises.
Opioids Taking Toll on Public Education
One of the key findings is the impact of the opioid crisis on student performance and mental health.
West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) Cabinet Secretary Bill Crouch has told legislators that the state is experiencing a “child welfare crisis.”
West Virginia DHHR has reported that the state needs 380 school counselors, 700 more social workers, and and 320 school psychologists to cope with the ongoing opioid epidemic. The DHHR has estimated it would cost more than $100 million to fill these positions and provide necessary health care facilities.
The report from the West Virginia Department of Education echoes those needs.
“Public schools carry much of the burden created by abuse, neglect and household dysfunction,” the report states. “As a result, school staffs need additional resources ranging from increased personnel and mental health services, to support for students and faculty impacted by the toxic stress they encounter daily. Progress moving forward will be significantly impeded if this crisis is not aggressively addressed.”
The Department of Education report recommends increased funding for social emotional supports but does not want funding to be earmarked for specific personnel or programs. It suggests allowing counties and schools to take responsibility for how they spend this funding to best fit local needs.
More Flexibility Needed for High Performing Schools
The Department of Education reports that most participants agreed that schools need to implement new practices to improve student achievement. The report recommends simplification of state rules and regulations to allow for more flexibility and local control within schools and the simplification of application processes to allow school participation in innovative efforts.
The report indicates that many forum participants are in favor of Innovation Zone Expansion -- defined in the report and at forums as “allowing schools and districts freedom from specific rules and regulations for increasing student achievement.”
The goal of the initiative is to try pilot reform strategies designed to improve student achievement and increase accountability within the existing public school system. Innovation Zones were implemented in West Virginia from 2009 - 2017.
Offering More Pay for Teachers in High Need Subjects Such as Math
In the report, the West Virginia Department of Education acknowledges that student achievement in math has been a concern for “several decades.”
“Teachers are often not prepared to teach math and strategies must be considered to assist schools in recruiting teachers into hard-to-fill positions,” the report states.
To aid in that problem, the report suggests funding a professional learning stipend for teachers in shortage areas such as math.
While that solution has been widely discussed by state officials, data collected for the report indicated that support for increased pay for math teachers is “divisive,” with 60 percent of respondents in the family and community survey supporting the proposal.
“Participants said this proposal would lead to resentment among teachers. Furthermore, there is concern that it would create shortages in other subject areas if teachers transfer to earn the incentive,” the report states.
Public Remains Opposed to Charter Schools, Education Savings Accounts
The report states that information collected “diverse and passionate” responses on the topic of charter schools.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 43 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation that authorizes charter schools. The Department of Education cited the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which says there are approximately 7,000 charter schools nationwide that enroll more than 3 million students.
But those numbers did not translate to support for the authorization of charter schools in West Virginia, according to the state Department of Education’s report.
“Most participants reported opposition to the creation of charter schools in West Virginia while simultaneously reporting a strong desire to be free from state and local rules and regulations,” the report states.
Implement the following requirements if a limited number of charter schools are authorized:
a. Place oversight/authorization responsibility with the West Virginia Board of Education and local boards of education;
b. Prohibit for-profit schools and management companies, and virtual charter schools;
c. Report Balanced Scorecard results for charter schools;
d. Require use of random lottery for oversubscribed schools to ensure open access to all students;
e. Require public charter schools to provide services to students with disabilities, English language learners and other high-needs students;
f. Develop minimum level of qualifications for charter school educators; and
g. Evaluate successes of pilot charter schools for potential extension of the same flexibilities to traditional public schools.
According to the report, of the 690 comment cards that addressed charter schools, 88 percent of respondents expressed opposition.
Public sentiment on education savings accounts was similar, with 88 total percent of respondents strongly disagreeing or somewhat disagreeing with the proposal.
“Participants voiced concerns that ESAs would divert money from public education. Some attendees echoed unease that such an option would be misused or abused, and there would be less accountability for those receiving funds through ESAs,” the report states.
How the Report Might Affect Lawmakers Set to Return for Special Session
How the report might influence lawmakers during the upcoming special session remains to be seen, although the Republican leaders in the Legislature remains intent on passing legislation involving charter schools and education savings accounts.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson) has been a strong proponent of school choice proposals. He said the report mostly reinforced what lawmakers have already heard from the public and also expressed concerns on the number of people who offered their thoughts on the matter.
“I appreciate and always value the public’s input and the effort of the Department of Education. But, it confirms a lot of what we already knew,” Carmichael said. “With the incredibly low sample size and the incredibly low participation in the events, it’s hard to glean a trend from a report that was not scientifically conducted.”
He acknowledged there is support for more local control and flexibility.
Carmichael said the Senate plans to move forward with proposals for charter schools and education savings accounts during the special session.