by Kate Shunney
Parents, teachers, school and elected officials and community members from multiple counties filled Berkeley Springs High School’s
cafeteria last Wednesday to weigh public education reforms being proposed by state officials.
The April 3 forum was the last of eight set up by the West Virginia Department of Education to gather comments about ways to improve public education in the Mountain State. The other forums were held in Ona, Beckley, Charleston, Clarksburg, Parkersburg, Wheeling and Welch.
According to state education spokeswoman Kristin Anderson, 175 participants signed in at the Berkeley Springs forum.
Forum facilitator Stacie Smith of the Consensus Building Institute opened last Wednesday’s forum by saying her role was to help state officials “make good decisions” about school reform by gathering input from the public.
She said another goal was to the introduce reform proposals, some of which were in SB 451. That education reform bill emerged from the West Virginia Legislature during its regular session and created widespread controversy that resulted in two days of school personnel strikes in February.
Components of the SB 451 included education savings accounts, charter school authorization, class size adjustments, teacher pay raises, duty flexibility for school personnel and funding changes for public education at the county level.
By a show of hands, the largest proportion of attendees at last week’s forum were employees of West Virginia’s public school system. Others were elected officials from the local and state level, parents and families of students, alumni of West Virginia schools and community members.
School employees at the session came from across the Eastern Panhandle and Potomac highlands. County superintendents from Hampshire, Pendleton and Grant counties attended along with school board members from Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson counties.
State Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine listed key legislative proposals that were up for comment during the forum.
In all, 18 reform proposals were listed for attendees to consider. They were divided into four categories: School Choice & Innovation, Social Emotional Supports, Funding Opportunities and Instructional Quality. Attendees were asked to pick their topics of interest and join a discussion on that topic.
Twenty facilitators from the West Virginia Department of Education led talks at round tables in the high school cafeteria and old gymnasium.
Comment cards from the forums will also be part of the report, along with responses to online surveys from teachers, personnel and families.
Many who attended the event said they weren’t familiar with all of the reform proposals or what they would entail for students, teachers or their schools.
At a table for discussion of funding reform proposals, there was general support for the idea of increasing teacher pay, but questions about where the money would come from.
“If you want to increase our salary but increase our taxes, we haven’t gained anything,” said one Berkeley County employee.
The idea of guaranteeing a basic level of funding for small county school systems was questioned. An “enrollment floor” rule would assure that counties with 1400 or fewer students would still get enough state funding to operate their schools.
“That sounds great, but what if they have 500 students?” asked a Morgan County resident.
Morgan County schools have 2,450 enrolled students.
A local teacher said the idea of counties setting their own levy rate for public education has too much uncertainty attached to it, and could make it harder for counties with an excess levy that’s renewed every four or five years.
Local growth could also affect how much school funding would be available to counties, said a Morgan County man.
“Unlike Berkeley County, Morgan County isn’t growing with industry. Taxes come on the backs of residents,” he said.
In weighing proposals to improve instructional quality, some said that teachers have too many duties and not enough flexibility to tailor their teaching to their individual classrooms.
Too many instructional days are set aside for testing and other things, said one teacher.
“A test shouldn’t be so complicated that we have to teach children how to take the test, not just the content in it,” she said.
“There needs to be realistic talk about discipline problems,” said a retired educator from Berkeley County.
Another classroom teacher said “new, innovative models” for teaching and discipline are being introduced so often that there’s no way to judge if they really work.
Several attendees approved of the proposal to create “teacher leaders” who are seasoned instructors who coach new teachers.
Added investment in emotional supports for students were a high-interest item for many attendees who work directly with students. Some community members said they were unaware of the specific needs of children coming into public schools from homes affected by addiction or incarceration.
Legislation this session would have added $25 million for additional emotional supports for students.
Proposals for school choice and flexibility were met with questions from attendees. At one table, there was unanimous support for the state to expand preschool programming to 3-year-olds. Teachers and parents said that would give West Virginia children a “jump start” on school and giving working parents a free, healthy, safe alternative to childcare.
Several people said they needed more information about proposed “school innovation zones” to see their pros and cons. Facilitators said the zones would allow some schools to lift select state restrictions to meet local needs.
A Jefferson County school board member said her concern would be a lack of accountability or oversight with innovation zones.
In charter schools, she said, “all of the accountability is stripped away.”
A Morgan County teacher said he was concerned about charter schools taking money out of a public education system that’s already falling short.
A Berkeley County educator said she was worried that charter schools would not be as inclusive as public schools, which have to accept all students. She said non-English speaking parents of her students would have a hard time understanding complex forms to apply for a charter school.
Education savings accounts sparked similar concerns of pulling students and money away from public education.
In some cases, teachers feared that giving parents funds to educate their children would shortchange students.
“Many of my students’ parents are addicted to something. When we give them extra money and allow them to pull the child out of schools, that child won’t learn anything but what the TV teaches them,” a Berkeley County teacher said.
West Virginia delegates and state senators attending the forum were encouraged to be in “listening mode” to hear public input.
A report that includes public comments about reforms will be delivered to the governor before a special session of the Legislature is convened in May on the topic of public education.
That report will also be released to the public.
Paine said there have been 18,000 responses to the online education survey so far, and 1,600 attendees at the eight state forums.