By Mannix Porterfield
Reforming the education system in the upcoming legislative session must keep student achievement as the overriding goal, says the president of the West Virginia Education Association.
Reducing classroom size, student-parental accountability and the truancy issue all must be on the agenda when education falls under the Legislature’s microscope, and lawmakers, even in a time such as this, cannot ignore the pay scale that finds West Virginia’s teachers near the bottom, Dale Lee said Friday.
“If we’re serious about reforms, then reforms should center around student achievement,” Lee said.
In a single school term, some students are absent 40 to 60 days, so truancy remains a major obstacle confronting the education system, Lee said.
The WVEA takes exception to the recent audit ordered by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, based on seven forums the teachers group held across the state to hear what teachers and service professionals had to say about the state of education.
Merit pay is a proposal on which the WVEA stands adamantly in opposition. Across-the-board pay increases are another matter, but in these trying economic times, that could be a hard sell for teachers in the session.
Even so, history and the stats appear to be on the side of teachers.
Fully a decade ago, the average West Virginia teacher ranked 30th in pay and 56 percent of the budget was absorbed by education. Now, the salary ranking has fallen to 48th and the state devotes 46 percent of its budget to the classrooms.
The average salary today is $45,600, and West Virginia continues to lose teachers across the border to states where they can fetch from $5,000 to $8,000 more a year.
Christine Campbell, new president of the American Federation of Teachers, said her group isn’t opposed to “career ladders” in the pay department if teachers are called upon to perform more. But wholesale merit pay itself doesn’t sit well with either teacher group.
“I think lawmakers and the Department of Education has maintained that the most important thing is to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers,” she said.
“You can’t talk out of both sides of your face. If you want those people, you’re going to have to pay for them.”
Campbell said she understands the times and how all struggle to meet needs.
“Education is truly the most important thing,” she said.
“We need to put it up at the top of the list. We’re not going to see education reforms until we’re ready to support the teachers we have.”
Lee pointed out that more than 600 classrooms across the state last year were devoid of a certified teacher.
“It’s not isolated to one or two areas of the state,” the WVEA leader said.
“It’s a problem with attracting and retaining the best and the brightest into our profession. A part of that is the pay, of course. But also a part of that is the lack of respect given to teachers and wanting to blame teachers for all the ills of society. Just about any day you can pick up a newspaper or see a press release from somewhere and they’re challenging teachers, or you read letters to the editor, blaming the teachers for everything. You hear politicians talk about how terrible our system is.”
Lee said such negative talk can only work against the system.
“We should be talking about the good things that are happening in education, not that you should never report the negative,” he said.
West Virginia recently achieved second place in the Advanced Placement exam, he pointed out, but little media attention was accorded.
As for higher pay, Lee said Tomblin and his predecessor, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., projected that revenues would be down this year.
“Yet, we continue to give money away,” he said.
“We continue to cut business franchise taxes and corporate net taxes. And now you’re saying these are tough times. You knew this for six years.”
Teachers last got an increase two years ago, a one-time adjustment of $1,488.
“We should be looking at this as a multi-year approach to improving the salaries in West Virginia,” Lee said.
“We should continue to look at reforms that will improve student achievement, not reforms simply to save money or that have no bearing on student achievement.”
David Haney, executive director of the WVEA, said the state’s child poverty rate is pegged at 23 percent, but that is misleading, since more than half of the students rely on free or reduced cost lunches.
Haney also disputed the connotation of the audit as “comprehensive,” noting it merely looked at school systems in Wyoming, Hancock and Randolph, all with 4,200 students but with square mileages of 140, 83 and 503, respectively.
“So consequently, the needs for those school systems are going to be quite different with the same number of pupils,” Haney said.
“We didn’t look comprehensively at all the school systems in the state to determine where in the world some of these places are wasting money. Some have far more administrative staff than others. Is there a reason for that? Is there a savings possible there? Most of the savings in the audit come from child nutrition programs, which is certainly not the place we want to cut.”
Campbell wants the Legislature to examine “the top heaviness” in many administrative posts across the state.
“Money needs to go as close to the classroom as possible,” she said.
“We already know that there are education dollars in West Virginia, but we’re not getting results from those classroom dollars. I think it’s because the money is not going to the classroom. It’s being sent to the top instead of the bottom, where it should be. If you want results, put the money where results can come. We can teach these kids if somebody will just let us and give us the tools we need.”
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