CHARLESTON — Rev. Matthew J. Watts, the senior pastor of Grace Bible Church in Charleston and CEO of HOPE Community Development Corporation, asked the West Virginia House of Delegates’ Education Committee to require “accountability” regarding the high percentages of low-income white and black students expulsion rates in state schools.
House Education chair Delegate Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, greeted the committee and guests at the Jan. 30 meeting by welcoming Rev. Matthew Watts to a round of applause after noting it was Watts’ birthday.
Watts presented a timeline of federal, state and independent educational reports that noted 20,000 students suspended per year, with higher suspension rates for poorer white students and black students. Watts noted that middle and lower class black suspension rates remain equal, adding that black male students, regardless of household income, are suspended at higher rates than any other group.
Watts speculated that neglect of the data over the decades have normalized the issue, and said the problem is systemic. “It’s going to take legislative action for change.” Watts said he does not think the higher rates of expulsion are premeditated acts or malicious intent. “Something is built into the cultural lens of the school system,” he said.
Watts suggested an implicit bias.
“When someone in the school system has to make a decision, it appears that African American and lower income white children are being treated more harshly.”
He called for accountability. “We are not looking for villains."
Watts said his goal is to inform, find the problem and fix it.
West Virginia's low academic achievement, low labor force participation and poverty can be attributed to school suspensions, Watts said, noting that suspended days are unexcused absences and unexcused absences lead to truancy issues.
He asked for legislative action while complimenting Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Ryan Quinn on his article, “Study: Black students disproportionately punished in WV schools.”
Watts asked the committee for legislation that would close the described expulsion gap. He asked them to look into the data and examine the disproportionate disciplinary actions.
Jefferson County Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, concurred and asked Watts for specific legislative suggestions.
Watts suggested the following: in-school suspension, school-based mental health and social services, community engagement, community-based mentoring, pilot programs that seek to engage people outside the school system and inquiry into the role of the local school improvement councils (LSIC) that are mandated to look at school disciplinary actions.
Delegate Amanda Estep-Burton, D-Kanawha, suggested the problem needed an urban and rural approach.
Watts agreed and said that the problem should be looked at school by school, adding, “Individuals are making referrals and individuals are making the disciplinary decisions.”
Burton asked Watts if he could provide specific county data. The pastor reminded the committee members the data being presented belongs to the people. “You are the people.”
He encouraged them to seek the data from the state superintendent of schools and other sources.
At the close of the committee, Burton said representatives of Our Future West Virginia were in attendance and that they offered an alternative look at the expulsion problem. Burton asked that the organization, led by Jennifer Wells, be placed on the agenda to speak at a later date.
In other action, the committee voted unanimously to amend and move HB 4546 relating to tuberculosis testing for school superintendents. The bill seeks to remove requirement for biennial tuberculosis screenings for county superintendents.
The committee also discussed HB 4378 that authorizes the state superintendent to limit teaching certificates, admonish, or enter into consent agreements requiring specific training in order for a teacher to maintain a teaching certificate. The bill also provides for the revocation of a license for any teacher found to have committed sexual misconduct involving a student, minor, or individual who was a student in the preceding 24 months. The amended bill received unanimous support.