By Mannix Porterfield
Tossing more money into education hasn’t proven effective in West Virginia, so reforms intended to improve test scores and lower the dropout rate must focus on putting more control at the local level, says Senate President Jeffrey Kessler.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s massive education package — almost 180 pages — appeared Monday in both houses, and Senate Democrats immediately went into caucus to analyze it.
“It isn’t just money,” Kessler, D-Marshall, said after a brief floor session, when asked if reforms are tied to more dollars.
“That hasn’t worked so far. If it had, we wouldn’t be in the shape we’re in. We need some basic reforms. We need to get the bureaucracy, particularly the state bureaucracy, out from the local level. We can’t micro-manage what happens in a classroom from Charleston. There’s been way too much of that.”
Whatever course the Senate follows, Kessler predicted its version would be shipped over to the House of Delegates within a month.
“I’d be surprised if we weren’t prepared and willing and able to get a bill out of here in a relatively short order before 30 days have elapsed,” the Senate president said.
“What I don’t want to see is this thing drag on to the end.”
Kessler all but said a pay raise for school teachers is out of the question in this session, given the budget constraints that have imposed a dark cloud over state finances.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said.
“Looking at the tight budget this year, when you’re talking about cutting higher education by 7.5 percent, I’m not going to sit here and try to build expectations for a pay raise.”
Kessler said lawmakers cannot “turn it into a tit for tat, that we only get education reforms if we put more money on the table.”
For the past three decades, he pointed out, education has gobbled up between 60 and 65 percent of the general revenue budget.
“We need to focus on outcomes,” he said.
“You get those outcomes up, we’ll make sure our teachers are paid adequately and in a professional manner and competitively. That’s the key word — competitively.”
Once some grim statistics improve, he said, it will be easier for teachers to justify higher pay.
“At that point, a request for a salary increase will be much more warmly received,” Kessler said.
Particular attention needs to be riveted on the school calendar, providing more flexibility to local boards, he said.
“We need to make sure we keep our kids in the classroom, reduce the dropout rate and make sure the kids who are graduating are able to read and write so they don’t need remedial math and English,” the Senate leader said.
“Some of the horror stories we’re hearing is that a lot of kids are getting passed out without the basic reading and writing skills when they go to community or a four-year college, the statistics are way out of whack.”
Almost one-fourth of students drop out before earning a diploma and those who graduate can’t make the grade in college, he said.
“So, we’re not getting the bang for our buck,” he said.
“There needs to be a significant input from teachers as well. They know what works in the classroom. We need to let the teachers do what they do best, and that’s teach, I think we’ll all be better, particularly the children.”
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