Stop Delaying School Reform

Nine months – the equivalent of a full school year – have passed since an “audit” report on public education in West Virginia was released. It contained a variety of recommendations for improvement, along with some scathing criticisms. Yet the state Board of Education has not yet responded to the study.

Board members discussed a formal response this week but, according to a published report, dealt only with the format for their document. Its content is still being ironed out.

However, on the same day school board members were hashing out how many sections should be in their response to the audit and whether individual items should be numbered or “bulleted,” there was another major development regarding public education in West Virginia. State Department of Education officials revealed they are ready to submit a plan to replace the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The decade-old NCLB law has been a dismal failure in improving schools. Though Congress has not rescinded or replaced it, President Barack Obama’s administration has decided states should be granted waivers from complying, if they submit school reform proposals acceptable to the U.S. Department of Education.

It has taken state Department of Education officials months to develop a waiver proposal. If accepted in Washington, it will exempt West Virginia public schools from certain NCLB requirements, including some standardized testing. The state proposal also includes use of testing, along with other data reflecting student improvement or lack of it.

In some ways the state plan to replace NCLB sounds like a comprehensive strategy. For example, it will replace the federal system of just two categories of schools, those making adequate yearly progress according to NCLB standards and those failing to do so, with multiple ratings ranging from “targeted for support” to “highly effective.”

Despite being able to come up with that plan, however, state officials have not moved beyond what a response to the state education audit should look like.

It isn’t because the state Department of Education lacks personnel to do the job. As the audit report pointed out, there are hundreds of them – a higher ratio of state administrators to students than in many other states. Even at that, however, the state department in August contracted with a former staff member to work on the audit response.

And, again, there seems to have been ample time to craft a response.

So what’s the hold-up?

Earlier this summer, board members said they wanted to wait until a series of public meetings had been held to determine how West Virginians feel about education.

It certainly is important for the state department and board of education to get this right. But time is of the essence; if legislative action is necessary, state lawmakers will want to look at and discuss the board’s response before their regular session in January.

State board of education members should insist the state Department of Education get moving on a response to the audit, before West Virginians begin to suspect foot-dragging and resistance to reform are to blame.