When former West Virginia Superintendent Jorea Marple was fired by the state board of education late last year, the board said one motivation for the decision was the need for a significant change in direction for K-12 in the state. With a lengthy bill introduced in the state legislature on Monday, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, has shown exactly how he wants “education reform” in his state to proceed, at least initially. The bill has a focus on early education and teacher qualifications, but has been panned by teachers.
The actual measure containing the reforms sought by Tomblin is Senate Bill 359 (there’s also a version in the House). The highlights of his plan include support for an expansion of preschool to all-day programs, and allowing parents to opt into the all-day programs; allowing members of Teach for America to fill classroom positions in “critical need areas"; and to strengthen teacher education in reading.
That last bit is interesting, since Tomblin in his State of the State speech delivered on Feb. 13 pointed out the importance of having 3rd graders demonstrate their literacy. The emphasis on reading in teacher preparation appears to address that question, albeit in a less-direct fashion than the approach other states have chosen of requiring at least some 3rd graders to be held back if they can’t demonstrate literacy in some form. That recently popular policy shift doesn’t appear to be in Tomblin’s bill.
In addition, Tomblin’s plan would require 180 days of instruction in public schools, yet at the same time provide “flexibility” for school calendars to meet that requirement. That suggests the possibility that school schedules could expand into the summer months and otherwise be molded out of their traditional forms. Tomblin also wants to create a commission that would evaluate the structure of local school boards.
So, how have the teachers’ unions reacted in West Virginia? In a word, poorly. They don’t like the idea of, one the one hand, increasing teacher preparation requirements, yet at the same time allowing Teach for America members to fill classroom positions. In addition, they said that even though an audit of the state’s K-12 system called for reducing bureaucracy, Tomblin’s plan doesn’t significantly address that problem. In addition, they say that allowing parents to send their children to all-day preschool less than five days a week, and less than a full day based on “family need,” isn’t a good idea.
Remember, teachers’ unions had less-than-kind words for the state board’s decision to boot Marple out of office last November, so they haven’t had cause to celebrate the trend of education policy in the state over the last several months. The education audit, combined with Marple’s dismissal, seemed to portend big changes in 2013 for West Virginia schools, and Tomblin has finally delivered his vision for those changes.
A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.