Vote Set on Who Controls Education in West Virginia

By Nancy Mathis — September 06, 1989 4 min read

West Virginians will go to the polls this Saturday to decide on a constitutional amendment that would substantially expand the influence of the governor and the legislature over state education policy.

The proposal, known as Amendment No. 1, would abolish both the state school superintendency and the state board of education as offices authorized by the constitution and endowed by it with a considerable degree of autonomy.

If the proposal is approved, a law passed during the legislature’s last session would reconstitute the school chief’s post and the board as statutory entities. Their actions would be subject to review by the legislature and could be vetoed by a new secretary of education and the arts appointed by the governor.

The amendment would continue to allow the governor to appoint all nine board members to staggered, nine-year terms. The board in turn would select the superintendent.

But the amendment’s approval would give the current chief executive, Gov. Gaston Caperton, an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the state’s top level of education policymaking. Unlike previous governors, who have been able to appoint only one board member a year, Mr. Caperton would select all nine members at once.

Although observers say the amendment has failed to arouse much interest among voters, it has divided the state’s education community. The West Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, is supporting the proposal, while the other major education organizations are working against it.

The amendment’s supporters point out that the education department is the only state agency whose policies, rules, and regulations are not subject to legislative review. Expanding the role of the governor and the legislature in education decisions, they say, will lead to greater accountability and coordination.

But opponents contend the measure would subject the state’s public schools to political favoritism and give excessive power to Governor Caperton.

The legislature voted earlier this year to submit the amendment to the voters as part of broader government-reorganization plan proposed by Mr. Caperton.

Also on the ballot are a measure that would allow counties and cities to consolidate services, and an amendment that would eliminate the elective posts of secretary of state, agricultural commissioner, and state treasurer.

“The main goal is to streamline government and improve education to create jobs,” said Steve Cohen, spokesman for Mr. Caperton, who is a Democrat. The Governor is attempting to move toward a consolidated, cabinet form of government, Mr. Cohen said.

“Presently the state school board consumes 70 percent of the state budget, yet is not accountable to the citizens, the legislature, or the governor,” said Mr. Cohen. “They are exempt from the checks and balances that apply to every other branch of government.”

The legislature also has tried to gain greater control over the state board. It passed a bill in 1988 creating a legislative-oversight committee to review and approve board policies, but the state supreme court declared the law unconstitutional.

Virgil Cook, president of the board, said the legislature and governor currently have enough influence over education policy because of their control of the budget and ability to pass laws superseding board policy.

Voters in 1958 gave the state board and superintendent constitutional authority, he said, because the education system had become rife with political favoritism.

“The proposed amendment removes the constitutional checks and balances approved by voters in 1958,” he argued. “It shifts power from the many to the few. One governor would appoint all board members.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a political power grab,” Mr. Cook said, “but as far as I can see the Governor wants complete control and autonomy over all governmental bodies.”

The Coalition Against Amendment No. 1, composed of 29 education groups, is leading the fight against the proposal. A separate coalition is campaigning for the defeat of all three amendments.

“My sense right now is all three amendments are going to fail,” said Kenneth Legg, executive secretary of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association and vice president of the education coalition opposing the amendment.

Mr. Legg said some voters are opposed to the substance of the amendments, while others are uncertain about their impact. In addition, he said, many voters are still upset with the Governor and legislature for enacting a $400-million tax inel10lcrease this year.

Opponents of the proposal, Mr. Cohen suggested, are “satisfied with the old-style political system they are accustomed to.”

People for Better Government, an organization formed by legislative leaders and two former governors, is spearheading the campaign for the three amendments.

“We’re starting to pick up momentum,” said Rebecca Cain, the campaign coordinator.

Ms. Cain said the education amendment would have little impact. Legislative review of state board policies would be the only change that would result from it, she said.

“This is simply allowing for a broader input and review of an education system we’re all paying for,” said Kayetta Meadows, president of the wvea

People for Better Government reportedly is trying to raise $625,000 to mobilize public backing for the amendments. Governor Caperton has raised about $200,000 to help support their passage, Mr. Cohen said.

Mr. Legg said opponents of the amendments are bracing for a last-minute media campaign by the measures’ supporters.

A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 1989 edition of Education Week as Vote Set on Who Controls Education in West Virginia