Five years ago, while serving as a member of the Greenbrier County Board of Education, I saw the paradoxical nature of our education system in West Virginia.
We have terrific educators, staff, and students! When I visit classrooms, lunch rooms, and break rooms, I see people doing their absolute best. I also have seen low student achievement, test scores, and attendance rates.
Generational poverty, substance abuse, and low expectations have crippled many of our schools. The need to provide services that literally keep children alive is overwhelming. It is time for reform that also is responsive to these needs and puts our students first.
Unfortunately, the “omnibus” plan, SB 451, currently being rushed through the State Senate does not address the real problems our students face. Should we:
• Increase classroom size? No, we need smaller classrooms with personalized instruction;
• Defund public schools by diverting funds to vouchers? No, underfunded classrooms are what got us in this mess generations ago;
• Divert funding to charter schools with no transportation, for-profit management companies, and no local control? No, thank you;
• Include divisive policies such as paycheck deception, reduction in force and removing the ability to strike? No, we need to work together, not tear each other apart;
• Allow counties to raise levy rates? No, that will deepen the divide between the rich and poor counties and force counties to raise property taxes;
• Create new layers of educational bureaucracy that have power over local boards of education? No, local control is vital.
The pay raises, banking sick days toward retirement, setting a floor for enrollment of 1,400 students, and more money for mental health are all positive. But, they don’t go far enough to affect change, especially in tradeoff for the many harmful provisions.
I propose an education reform plan that puts our students first by using the best practices of the world’s best schools including universal pre-k at age 3, smaller class sizes, classroom aides, safer schools, better access to mental health, funding innovation zones in all 55 counties, reinstating the arts and physical education, and fair compensation for educators so we may recruit and retain the best.
We will pay for it by adopting the revised funding formula proposed last month by the West Virginia Board of Education. The members worked for many months to update the formula to abide by the Recht decision, to be fair and comprehensive to all counties.
SB 451 also has a severability clause, which says that if any portion of the bill is struck down by our courts, the entire bill is struck. The only purpose of this clause is punitive, meant to divide the education community.
Major bills should be voted up or down on their own merits, as our constitution provides. All the components of the students-first education reform plan I outlined are bills existing in the West Virginia House of Delegates and State Senate. The Education Committee chairs should run those bills, debate them, and allow an up or down vote.
The true purpose of SB 451 seems to be to divide us when what we must do to effect real change in education is to be united and put our students first.
Senator Stephen Baldwin is a pastor from Ronceverte who represents District 10. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-357-7959.