There are legislative changes the West Virginia Department of Education would like to see during this year’s session in order to enact education reform.
But it would be hypocritical to ask for anything without looking at it’s own policies first, said state Superintendent Jim Phares.
“What we’re doing right now as we get ready for this legislative season, is we’re looking at changes we need to make,” Phares said Thursday. “It’s hard to go over and tell them they need to change this…”
Phares was one of three officials to take part in a discussion at Marshall University’s South Charleston Campus of topics legislators could take up for reforming education in the state. He was joined by David Haney, the executive director of the West Virginia Education Association, and Terry Wallace, a senior fellow at West Liberty University.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, state legislators and educators have repeatedly said education reform will dominate discussions during this year’s legislative session. Findings from the governor’s education efficiency audit, released last January, recommend many changes that would take some sort of action from the Legislature.
The audit recommended the Department of Education look at policies it cut could in order to reduce bureaucracy. Phares said that’s already underway, and goes hand-in-hand with eliminating parts of code pertaining to education that could be antiquated.
He shied away from providing particulars as to what changes he thought were vital to enacting the reform he wants to see. However, he hinted that laws pertaining to school calendars are getting a serious look from his department.
The state Board of Education championed the year-round, or balanced, school calendar when it responded to the education audit. The board and Phares both say they don’t want to mandate the calendar, but Phares reiterated Thursday that it’s one way to start reimagining the structure of K-12 education.
The WVEA, one of the largest teachers’ unions in the state, is not opposed to the balanced calendar, Haney said. He does have a problem with mandating a 180-day calendar though. Mandating days of instruction is an audit recommendation, and something teachers’ unions in the state continue to oppose. Quality of instruction is more important than time, Haney said.
Wallace, a long time educator at all levels in the system, said maximizing the time in the classroom is key. He thought the amount of “high-quality” education time spent everyday on core subjects–math, reading, science, etc.–doesn’t top two hours. Finding more effective ways to deliver those lessons is more important than seat time, Wallace said.
That doesn’t mean education needs more funding though, Wallace said. K-12 education already accounts for roughly half of the state’s $4 billion budget; instead, increasing communication between teachers at all levels of education will lend itself to better prepared students.
That includes increased discussions about career and technical, or vocational, programs, Wallace said. Phares agrees; since taking his position in early January, he has continued to trumpet the need for increased career and technical programing options. Tomblin specifically mentioned such programs in his inaugural speech as a need for providing more qualified employees for the state workforce.
All of the panelists thought the state was producing enough quality teachers, but there was disagreement about how to fill classrooms with the most qualified teachers. Wallace thinks the state needs to be more open to alternative certification programs, like Troops to Teachers or Teach For American.
Teachers unions typically oppose changes to certification; Haney said there are already seven routes to alternative certification in the state and increasing teacher salaries is the real key to retaining and recruiting quality teachers. The governor has already announced pay raises for public employees are unlikely during this session.
Phares said he needed to learn more about alternative certification programs, but agreed the state needs to find a way to make it easier to keep quality teachers in the state.
The legislative session starts Wednesday. The state board meets next week as well, where Phares is expected to outline the department’s “call to action,” the items he and the board believe are key to enacting education reform.