By Mannix Porterfield
Putting education at the top of his to-do-list for West Virginia lawmakers in the coming weeks, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin called for vast changes Wednesday in that arena, ranking this issue ahead of everything else — even the historically bedrock industry of coal.
Tomblin covered a wide array of issues in his 46-minute State of the State address, calling for a permanent act to cement public-private partnership in road building, and allowing police to use implied consent to test motorists suspected of being drug-impaired.
Yet, the thrust of his remarks were directed at education, inspired by a recent, critical audit of the public education system in the state.
“As important as the energy industry is to our economy in West Virginia, there is something more important, more important for our future, more important for our economy, and more important for creating good-paying jobs, and that is education,” Tomblin told a joint assembly of the House and Senate.
“Education in West Virginia must change. And that change begins now.”
Without tipping his hand on specifics, Tomblin said he would ensure that all elementary teachers are especially trained in reading so students can be skilled in that arena by the third grade.
A second point of his agenda would require every county, within three years, to offer full-day pre-school to all 4-year-olds.
Tomblin also vowed to support the Benedum Foundation to devise a process for defining the components and costs of a quality “birth through 5 program,” and urged a $17 million special appropriation to preserve childhood subsidies.
The Democratic governor pledged to work with the Department of Education, the courts, and the Department of Health and Human Resources to attack the truancy problem, but suggested parents must pitch in as well.
“You are the greatest cheerleader your child will ever have,” he said, aiming his remarks at parents.
“Please take their education seriously and help them realize their potential. There is no greater force for educational achievement than a dedicated parent.”
Tomblin found as unacceptable a recent survey by Education Week known as Quality Counts that West Virginia ranks 49th, assigning the state an “F” for student achievement.
Equally abhorrent to him was the National Assessment of Educational Progress ranking the state below national averages in all but three of 24 categories. What’s more, the graduation rate is 78 percent, and the state finds it has the highest percentage of those between 16 and 19 either not in school or not working.
Tomblin said the state will pay for teachers seeking re-certification at the close of their 10-year tenure.
The governor said he supports the state Board of Education’s flexibility in overseeing professional development, but the delivery must come at the local level.
“Teachers should have a say because they know what critical skills they need to become successful in the classroom,” he said.
Saying existing hiring practices don’t assure the best teachers are in the classrooms, but, in some instances, keeps the better qualified ones out, Tomblin told lawmakers that the state board is devising a new system of accreditation.
“If we are going to make schools more accountable for their results, we must give teachers and principals a greater role in selecting the colleagues with whom they will share that responsibility,” he said.
Tomblin said state law should compel superintendents to put more stock in recommendations by principals and teachers about instructors they feel are best equipped to heighten student achievement.
“In the end, it is not about the adults, it is about the kids,” the governor said.
Tomblin said seniority is always a factor in hiring but shouldn’t be the exclusive yardstick.
As for instruction time, Tomblin said his proposal in instruction time won’t call for a new calendar at any school.
“It simply will free our local boards of education, in consultation with staff and the community, to design a calendar meeting the needs of adequate instructional time,” he said.
“We need to get back to a place of common sense in our approach to education. Otherwise, we will never get back to an adequate level of instructional time. Instead, we will be stuck, like we were last year, where our students only average 170 days of instructional time.”
Tomblin hit on a statewide societal ill — drug abuse — and reminded lawmakers that many would-be workers cannot pass a drug screen at one place and go elsewhere to avoid testing.
“They’re running out of options and so are we,” he said.
“Building a work force that is not only educated, but clean and sober is something only our people can do for themselves. Beginning today, we will carry the message: If you get high, you won’t get hired. Drugs aren’t working.”
Toward that goal, Tomblin disclosed a new Web site known as FaceYourFuture.com to help those addicted to substances.
Drug misuse gave the governor an opening to touch on another sore issue in West Virginia — overcrowded prisons.
Tomblin called for meeting the challenges and ideas advanced by the Council of State Governments to improve public safety and lower prison recidivism.
“What we learned was simple: Substance abuse is a huge part of prison overcrowding, and the high re-offending rate intensifies the problem,” he said.
In his third State of the State address, Tomblin said his agenda will also propose greater powers for the highways commissioner to complete road projects through private sector partnerships. The governor also wants lawmakers to create a public nonprofit to oversee the return of former industrial “brownfields” sites to economic use, and loosen a law that Tomblin said threatens employers with lawsuits and damage awards if they don’t pay departing workers within 72 hours.
“Small businesses do not need the hassle of re-running payroll every time an employee moves on,” the governor said.
As he did a year ago in the same House chamber, Tomblin again vowed to do all he can to battle the Environmental Protection Agency over coal regulations “and its misguided attempts to cripple this industry.”
Tomblin touted his administration’s efforts to assemble a balanced budget that includes no new taxes, albeit the process began with a potential $400 million deficit.
In another realm of development, the governor called for creation of a public, non-profit corporation to promote and oversee programs to foster development at unused sites.
“Let’s again work together as we begin this legislative session and share these great factors of good government — wisdom, patriotism, and diligence as we prepare and take action to move our great state forward,” he said.
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