Published Online: March 19, 1997

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W.Va. School-to-Work Law Caught in Ideological Battle

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West Virginia educators and business leaders tout their new education law as just the tonic schools need to offer students a more rigorous education and prepare them better for work.

But a year after the landmark Jobs Through Education Act overwhelmingly passed the legislature, its proponents have a fight on their hands. A bill in the legislature would repeal the law, and some lawmakers want to hold up money for its implementation.

Much of the opposition stems from provisions of the law that emphasize career preparation, echoing battles in Oregon, Oklahoma, and elsewhere in the country. As in West Virginia, the struggle is often ideologically tinged.

Critics in the Mountaineer State and around the country say such laws force schools to kowtow to industry and produce workers by lopping off their opportunities too early. They charge further that the laws reflect dangerous and potentially expensive federal and state intrusion into education, which should remain a local and family matter.

"This is one great national experiment and who's going to lose is the next generation," said Mary Ann Rohr, a former elementary school teacher who has been rallying opposition to West Virginia's law. Students should be able to draw on "a traditional, well-rounded liberal arts education" to make choices about college and work, but the law narrows their options in 8th grade, she said.

"I cannot with this new system look my grandson in the eye and say you can do anything and be anything you want," lamented Ms. Rohr, who is the founder of a West Virginia parent network known as Citizens for the Preservation and Restoration of the Family.

Criticisms Challenged

State education officials say such fears are unfounded. They contend that the law strengthens academics while helping students make connections between school and work that will keep them motivated and focused through high school. And officials deny that the changes will irrevocably slot middle or high school students into future jobs.

"The [law] greatly strengthens the academic rigor for every student," said William J. Luff Jr., the associate state schools superintendent.

Among the features of the school system overhaul are:

  • Nationally normed achievement tests for grades 3-11;
  • A goal that every student will read at grade level by the end of 4th grade;
  • Increased high school graduation requirements, including an additional year each in math, science, and fine arts;
  • A five-year career-preparation plan for each student developed in 8th and 10th grades in consultation with parents; and
  • A guarantee to employers that students who have performed at the 50th percentile on the state's achievement test will be ready for entry-level work or can return to school for reteaching.

Schools are required to have all the reforms in place by 2000.

Damaged by Labels

James E. McKay, the coordinator of the West Virginia Business and Education Alliance, praised the 1996 act as "one of the strongest pieces of legislation we've seen related to education in 20 years."

Still, he said, it is falling prey to labels. "People have seen there's significant change occurring and are automatically making the link to outcomes-based education," the movement to judge student performance on the basis of goals achieved that has run into trouble from conservatives, many of them Christian, around the country.

The West Virginia law has also come under fire for its potential cost to local school systems, which opponents say was downplayed when the proposal came before the legislature last year.

"It was sold to us as a feel-good bill," said Sen. Donna J. Boley, a Republican who sits on the education committee."My biggest concern is how much it is going to cost."

Del. Larry A. Williams, a Democrat who chairs the educational finance and policy subcommittee, acknowledged that local school boards, some superintendents, and the teachers' union had raised questions about cost.

"There's going to be some increase in costs," he said. "But it's not going to be anything that can't be handled."

Mr. Williams, a former school board member, said he has received mail from around the state decrying the new law. "They seem to connect it with socialism, communism, and who knows what."

Nonetheless, he said, support for the law remains solid in the capital. He said he didn't foresee success for either the repeal bill or the efforts of a few legislators to persuade Gov. Cecil H. Underwood to delay his $750,000 proposed budget allocation for implementing the law.

Lessons From Oregon

Despite the scattered opposition, support for career-preparation efforts nationwide remains strong, said Mary Ellen Bavaro, a spokeswoman for Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit group that promotes connections between learning and work.

A recent national poll commissioned by her organization "found overwhelming support for school-to-career" efforts among the public, she said. But it also found that most people were uninformed about the approach.

Ms. Bavaro noted that backers of a 1991 Oregon law with career-preparation elements similar to West Virginia's found out that "when it comes to implementation, if you haven't done your homework, it comes back to haunt you."

Oregon lawmakers substantially modified the act in 1995, heeding some of the objections from parents, educators, and local school boards.

Ms. Bavaro noted that 32 states are developing school-to-career programs and at least a dozen have legislation restructuring schools around career preparation.

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