With the aim of entering "a positive (legislative) session for West Virginia in education," the West Virginia Press Association and its executive director, Don Smith, hosted an education-themed panel during Friday's 2022 West Virginia Press Association Legislative Lookahead.

The morning session, which focused on education policies, staffing and funding, attracted numerous legislative and education leaders, as well as media members.

The remote event, which included support from the WVPA's corporate sponsors AARP WV, WVU and West Virginia International Yeager Airport, later included a panel aimed at discussions with legislative leadership, as well as a growth panel exploring economic development, broadband and infrastructure.

Del. Joe Statler, R-Monongalia and the vice chair of the House Education Committee, said Friday he sees several looming proposals that could strengthen education in the coming legislative session. "I know legislation we're working on ... can move this state forward and help our students in a tremendous way," said Statler, a 51st District delegate who is a former member of the Monongalia County Board of Education.

One piece of legislation he highlighted would pave the way for teachers' aides to be added to Grades 1-2 classrooms statewide which have more than 12 students. That legislation, if passed, would affect 1,800 classrooms and require an investment of $68 million.

Dale Lee, the 14-year president of the West Virginia Education Association, told Statler he understands the goal of placing aides in more classrooms, but he warned that the potential of altering the allowable number of students per class on an upward trajectory would minimize any benefits of having an extra adult in the classroom.

Statler also discussed exploring the funding formula for the state's colleges and universities, as well as a pending pay increase for public school system employees that "was not triggered by any request." Improving state revenue projections would help pay for the raise, Statler said. In November, West Virginia recorded an $88 million revenue surplus, bringing the total fiscal year surplus to $269 million in just five months, according to a recent press release from Gov. Jim Justice's office.

On Dec. 16, Justice said he had secured the support of the Republican-led Legislature to give all state employees, including public school teachers and service personnel, a 5 percent pay raise. The governor said all state employees will also receive a one-time 2.5 percent bonus to combat the rising costs of inflation. The raise would "continue to help our teachers and make education our centerpiece in West Virginia," said Justice.

The pay raise and bonus will be submitted to the West Virginia Legislature in the form of a bill, according to a press release. Legislative leaders announced they intend to support the move during the coming session, the release from Justice's office noted.

Lee said the announced pay raise would be appreciated, but he added that more must be done to address ongoing shortages of teachers, bus drivers, cooks and other personnel in school systems. "We have to make our salaries competitive with our contiguous states," said Lee. "Until we make salaries competitive, we're not going to be able to address those shortages."

Money to strengthen education could come from some of the federal funding that has flowed to the state to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, Lee said. And, after that money dries up, Lee — referencing past innovative zone programs — said the goal should be to "fund those programs that are working."

Through it all, he stressed, bring educational leaders to the table to figure it all out. "Ask educators what changes need to be made."

Lee also said all efforts must be made to fully fund PEIA moving forward after Justice leaves office. A bill has been introduced since 2019 and "it hasn't even made it to an agenda," he said.

The education panel also featured participation from Dr. Erin McHenry-Sorber, whose research centers on the internal and external structures and contexts which influence rural schools and communities and their relationships. McHenry-Sorber, an associate professor in the WVU College of Education and Human Services, was the lead author of a recent study which concluded that seasoned, locally-based principals are the key to hiring and keeping quality teachers. Co-author of the study was Matthew Campbell, also a CEHS associate professor.

"Seasoned principals can make a real difference in the recruitment of teachers, particularly in hard-to-staff places," McHenry-Sorber, a former teacher, said in a CEHS press release. "But this also suggests, from a policy perspective, that we need to be thinking more about how to retain principals.

"There's a suggestion that keeping a localized pipeline from teacher through administrator is really important."

She and Campbell interviewed eight principals across six county school districts in West Virginia over a four-month time frame in 2020. The study, "'If I Ever Leave, I Have a List of People That Are Going With Me': Principals' Understandings of and Responses to Place Influences on Teacher Staffing in West Virginia," was published in Education Administration Quarterly.

McHenry-Sorber and Campbell, who have studied teacher staffing shortages since the 2010s, opted to focus on principals for the current study. They looked at schools ranging from "ones on large tracts of nationally-owned land to those among the coalfields." They also analyzed schools' proximity to teacher education programs, outdoor recreation destinations and historically, economically-distressed places.

While alternative pathways to certification are a debated issue, Campbell said, the need to fill vacancies lead principals to use all available tools to help them to locate teachers to instruct their students. "The pathways to get certified have become more plentiful and accessible," Campbell said. "The problem is we haven't supported these people to stay in this career for a long time. And so they leave and we're back to where we started." The key is to find people who are invested in local schools and communities, they stress.

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a physician who is a member of the Senate Education and Finance committees and Interim Education and Finance Committee, praised the WVPA and panelists for highlighting educational issues as the session approaches. He suggested, among other ideas, using some Covid-19 money to strengthen the WV Birth to Three early intervention program. He also said child welfare needs "a major tweaking," and workforce issues must be better addressed.

"The haves will be OK," Stollings said. "The folks that are living in poverty, they're not going to be."

Lowering collections in areas such as coal and gas severance taxes and income taxes will make funding necessary social programs harder, he stressed. "I hate to be a Debbie Downer here, but folks, we've got some heavy lifting to do."

Also taking part Friday was Del. Ed Evans, D-McDowell County, 26th District, a member of the House Education Committee and the House Interim Education Committee, as well as a retired science teacher. Evans said one of the keys in moving education forward is to evaluate and reflect how issues were handled in the past. He also said that, as with many other fields, recruiting young workers is obviously a must. That, though, is getting harder because various colleges have cut different teaching programs in recent years. "We're losing programs left and right," said Evans. "We're losing our youngest."

Another panelist, Dr. Mirta Martin, the president of Fairmont State University, discussed metrics utilized in addressing performance-based funding formulas for higher education. The aim, she said, is to produce "job-ready graduates" while not putting too much of a financial burden on the institutions which produce them. She also noted a recent report which revealed that 17 percent of the students who considered enrolling at her school opted not to attend college, at least in part, due to the pandemic environment. "That's a heck of a lot of students that are outside our pipeline," she said.

Email: skeenan@register-herald.com or follow on Twitter @gb_scribe

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