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West Virginia Governor Signs Massive Reform Measure

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Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr. of West Virginia has appproved a massive school-reform bill that gives the state sweeping authority to take control of substandard school districts.

The 173-page measure, which was passed during a special legislative session in late June and signed by Mr. Moore on July 15, also calls for a new statewide testing program; revokes the driving privileges of high-school dropouts; permits parents to purchase tax-free bonds to save for their children's college education; and allows the state board of education to sell an unlimited amount of bonds for school construction.

Governor Moore signed the measure despite a plea from the state board that he veto it. The panel objects strenuously to a provision that creates a legislative education-oversight commission and empowers it to review board regulations and modify or reject them.

The board voted unanimously on July 8 to challenge the provision in the state courts, claiming that it violates the constitutional principle of separation of powers.

"We feel that the commission would be exercising the roles and responsibilities ascribed to the state board,'' Patricia Hamner, the newly elected board president, told reporters after the panel's vote to contest the provision.

The Governor said he also supports a court test, but added that he could not veto the measure because "there are 35 other items in [it] that will have a tremendous impact on education in the state.''

Compromise Measure

Despite their misgivings about the new legislative commission, state education officials were generally supportive of the remainder of the bill, which represents a compromise between the Democratic-controlled legislature and the Republican Governor. Similar proposals were defeated during the legislature's 1987 session and in the final hour of this year's regular session.

"We just got the beginning of education reform,'' said James C. Smith, a deputy state school superintendent. He added that the measure would be a "road map'' for the delivery of high-quality education.

Howard O'Cull, executive director of the West Virginia School Boards Association, said the measure "is an attempt at education reform even if you don't like parts of the bill.''

Tax Shifts Axed

Aside from the new legislative panel, most objections to the measure apparently center on what was left on the cutting-room floor.

For example, lawmakers rejected a plan by Governor Moore to raise an estimated $29 million through taxes on soft drinks, alcohol, and tobacco to provide teachers and other state employees with a 5 percent pay increase.

House and Senate conferees also stripped a provision from the bill that would have accelerated the pace of the state's controversial property-reappraisal program, a move that would have injected millions of dollars in new local revenues into schools by 1989.

In addition, the reform measure set the fiscal 1989 school-aid budget at $717 million, the same level as in the past two years. A companion bill passed during the special session reduced that amount to $705 million.

'A Big Mess'

The bill "does not address funding for salaries or funding for education,'' said Kayetta Meadows, president of the West Virginia Education Association. "If you don't have funding, what you put down on paper is meaningless.''

Robert Harman, a Mineral County school administrator and a 22-year veteran of the House, added that the bill "is a big mess. No one knows for sure what it is going to do.''

He contended that most of his colleagues in the legislature did not fully understand the ramifications of changes they approved in the state's complex school-finance formula. The state education department has estimated that 53 of the state's 55 districts will receive less money as a consequence of those changes.

In addition to altering the formula, the reform bill compels the state to act by 1994 to address the spending disparities among districts caused by so-called "excess'' property-tax levies.

The excess levies have been at the heart of West Virginia's ongoing school-finance lawsuit. Forty-six districts have asked the state supreme court to rule on whether the special judge who has been hearing that suit has the authority to order the redistribution of excess-levy revenues from rich to poor districts.

Key Provisions

The bill's main provisions include:

  • Legislative oversight. It creates a joint House-Senate oversight commission on education accountability authorized to make "a continuing investigation'' of the practices, policies, and procedures of the state board and of any other matters regarding education. Officials familiar with the provision said it was added to the bill by the Senate in response to complaints from local school administrators over paperwork burdens.

The state board must submit all of its proposed rules to the commission. After reviewing a rule, the panel must recommend to the full legislature whether to adopt, modify, or reject the proposal.

Practically all education rules must pass through this procedure before taking effect. The board can approve emergency rules, but they will expire after 15 months.

Lawmakers also ordered the new commission to conduct a study of whether the state and local education bureaucracies are so bloated as to hinder reform efforts.

  • State intervention. Beginning in 1989, the bill establishes a new "outcome-based'' accreditation system for school districts that will take into account such factors as finance, curriculum, test scores, dropout rates, and average class sizes.

The state board will review districts annually and grant them either full or probationary accreditation. Districts on probation will be given one year in which to make state-recommended improvements.
If the changes do not satisfy the board, it may declare "a state of emergency'' in the district, dismiss its superintendent, and assume virtually total control over its operations.

The bill also requires districts to issue "report cards'' for their schools annually. The results of the assessment are to be published in local newspapers and mailed to parents.

The new law also allows parents to petition their local principals to establish school advisory councils. These councils may then ask the state board to waive its regulations to permit the implementation of locally developed reform efforts.

  • Testing. The measure scraps the state's controversial Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills and replaces it with a new, criterion-referenced Statewide Testing of Educational Progress program.

Beginning in the 1990-91 school year, students in grades 1-4 will be tested in reading, writing, and mathematics to measure their progress against "learning outcomes'' set by the state board. The program will be expanded through the 8th grade by 1994-95, and the board can add additional subjects to the test at its discretion.

Teachers may use the test scores as a factor in determining whether to recommend students for promotion. Those retained in their grade must be provided with remediation. The scores will also be used as a factor in determining whether districts qualify for full state accreditation.

The bill also requires the state board, beginning in 1990, to administer statewide the tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The testing cycle of grade levels and subjects will be the same as that of the national program.

  • Early childhood. The bill requires the state board to implement an unspecified form of "readiness'' testing for children in kindergarten. Teachers may use the test results in determining whether to recommend that children be placed in new "transitional'' kindergarten programs rather than in the 1st grade.

The bill also requires the education and health departments to develop by 1990 a screening and early-intervention program for developmentally delayed and "at risk'' children from birth through 5.

In addition, it authorizes districts to establish day-care centers in schools for the children of school employees, and states that teachers and other school employees may take up to one year of unpenalized, unpaid leave in order to "bond'' with their newborn or adopted children.

  • Driver's licenses. The bill requires the department of motor vehicles to deny licenses to those under 18 who fail to prove that they are either enrolled in or have graduated from high school. Ten consecutive absences from school or a total of 15 absences are grounds for suspension of a license.
  • Teaching. The measure creates a program of forgivable loans for prospective teachers. Teachers must work two years for every year that they received aid, or may have their debt excused on a "one-for-one'' year basis if they teach in a shortage field or in a region with many disadvantaged students.

In addition, the bill authorizes the state board to establish an "alternative route'' to teacher certification; requires it to implement a teacher-internship program; and mandates that it cooperate with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. It allows officials to use the board's standards, when they are completed, for issuing state teaching certificates.

  • College tuition. The bill authorizes the state board of regents to sell bonds in denominations ranging from $25 to $500 to help parents save for their children's college education. Interest on the bonds will be free from state taxation. If parents spend their bond revenues for other purposes, they must pay back taxes and will be assessed a 10 percent penalty.

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