By Mannix Porterfield
Flanked by key lawmakers, business and education leaders, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed legislation Wednesday bringing reforms to West Virginia’s troubled school system, emphasizing this is merely a start.
“This is a huge step in the right direction,” Tomblin said at the bill-signing ceremony.
“But I want to emphasize it’s just the beginning. We have major changes to make and I’ve already started on some.”
Tomblin said SB359 met five specific goals he had in mind when he proposed the bill two months ago.
All children must read at grade level by the 3rd grade, high school graduates must be prepared to land a job or enter college or vocational school, students need to learn in a variety of ways, public education has to be run at the local level and not by the Charleston bureaucracy, and “all students must be taught by great teachers,” the governor said.
“This makes changes to ensure we’re preparing kids for the future,” Tomblin said.
“Everyone involved shared in one goal — we want to do what is best for the kids and I’m proud to say we did it.”
The bill traveled no smooth route to his desk, however.
Teacher organizations initially were angered by the first version, but signed on once compromises were built in. A key one allows seniority equal footing with other hiring criteria.
Even with the changes, Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, left no doubt that lawmakers need to take a look at teacher salaries.
“We want to ensure we have the top quality teachers in every classroom and we have to address salaries to be able to ensure that our great teachers stay in the state of West Virginia,” he said at the ceremony.
Christine Campbell, incoming president of the American Federation of Teachers, made no mention of the pay issue but said “everyone got something” in the compromise version of SB359.
“The provisions of the bill are things that are going to help student achievement,” she predicted.
House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, said the legislation proves what can be accomplished when all stakeholders meet at the table and work toward a common goal — “what’s best for our kids.”
The bill originated in his chamber, and Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, said that’s why he made it a priority early on.
“They all deserve a chance,” he said of West Virginia’s school children.
“They’re all going to get one. We want to keep them here.”
Tomblin said the next effort in education will be to improve education at the middle school level and to bring more technological advances into the classrooms.
“We have more changes to make and I’ve already started on some,” he said.
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