While Senate President Mitch Carmichael and his Republican minions were spending inordinate time this legislative season on behalf of charter schools in the name of education reform, much policy was left off the table and many important voices were left out of the discussion.
The end result? Reform is still desperately needed. You don’t need to study the menu long to see the veritable smorgasbord of issues begging for attention in West Virginia. High on the priority list, however, should be education. What is also clear, disappointing and contrary to progress is that the legislative agenda in this particular matter is being guided by those with a profit motive – not those who have a genuine interest in shaping the education of our children.
In a front-page story in today’s Register-Herald, reporter Erin Beck captures important voices of recent high school graduates and those of education and economic policy experts – perspectives that were either not heard, dismissed or purposely muted during the school reform debate.
What we read in Beck’s story are two simple realities: Our kids would prefer to find and build a career right here at home. They love it here – the natural beauty, their families, their friends, the sense of community, all of it – and they want to stay. That comes through loud and clear.
So, too, does their disappointment that they may have to move out of state. Because they can read the handwriting on the wall, because they can dispassionately analyze the downward arc of the coal mining industry, they are not inclined to head underground. They are hoping for, asking for, economic diversity so that there might be jobs that play to their interests, that would contribute to local and state economies.
The second notion is this: Our political leaders are failing to marry economic and education policy, rather treating them as separate and distinct entities and failing to see their symbiotic relationship. As John Deskins, director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said in the story, “I fear that the discussion has really been focused too narrowly because of all this discussion of charter schools and not a discussion of all the other issues that we face that are complex.”
Mara Casey Tieken, associate professor of education at Bates College, in Lewiston, Maine, added this: “One thing that I think can be a real challenge with educational policy-making, and particularly rural education policy-making, is that it’s often made not in coordination with other sorts of policies.”
The Legislature came up short this year and that is disappointing. This most recent pass could have seriously and effectively inspired our collective thinking about how to improve education in West Virginia. To achieve that, legislative leaders must be willing to hear from educational experts, perhaps even drawing on them – and not greedy special interest – to help write a credible, workable plan.
Let’s be clear: Camichael et al. were not all that interested in improving educational outcomes as they claim. If they were, we all may have witnessed a robust conversation about how to structure a school curriculum that speaks to different interests, that establishes separate tracks of study, that serves those who are eyeing the trades, those who are passionate about the arts and those who have special aptitudes in STEM.
But Carmichael’s crew was simply doing the bidding of their benefactors – google Americans for Prosperity for the details – who are rather handy and flush with cash when the campaign season rolls around.
Of course, there are smarter ways forward without charter schools, and there is more serious and effective policy that could be and should be developed.
We applaud – again – legislators for providing funding for wrap around social services for so many of our children who come from homes turned upside down by the drug epidemic. The need for that piece of this omnibus legislation was immediate and necessary.
So, too, with the 5 percent teacher pay raise. That should help attract, in small measure, quality candidates into the profession and fill some of the 700 classroom positions where noncertified teachers are delivering lessons in subjects in which they are neither invested nor knowledgeable.
But charter schools? They fix nothing that’s broken. But we do know who they serve and it’s not the school children of this state.