Recognize Need For Real Change

State board of education members finally have responded officially to a report highly critical of how public education is managed in West Virginia. And while the board’s stance is encouraging, it actually accomplishes little. The heavy lifting of school reform will not begin until January, when the Legislature goes into session.

An “audit” of state schools conducted by an out-of-state consultant has been complete for nearly a year. Legislators have been eager to plan for a reform agenda, but have been waiting for the state board to make its position clear.

That occurred on two days this month.

The first was on Nov. 15, when the board, by a 5-2 vote, decided to fire state Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple. Though a replacement has not been approved, there are reasons to believe most board members think true school reform requires beginning with a clean slate – and with nothing off-limits for change.

If that indeed is the case, progress in reinvigorating the school system may be possible.

But last Wednesday, in releasing its response to the audit report, board members sent something of a mixed message.

They agreed with many of the consultants’ conclusions, at least in general terms. For example, the board’s position supports changing the current school calendar, but does not specifically call for classes to be held 12 months a year, with longer mid-year breaks than occur now.

Changes in the way teachers are evaluated – and compensated – also are part of the board’s position. It will be up to legislators, perhaps in opposition to the two big teachers’ unions, to implement that.

On some topics, however, the state board seems to favor a status quo approach. One example is school maintenance and construction. Currently, the state Department of Education has an Office of Facilities to oversee school buildings. An entirely separate School Building Authority provides funding for new schools and improvements to existing ones. That makes no sense, as the consultants pointed out – but state board members want to continue the separation.

One critical decision by the board last week was to make its position paper on school reform a “living document.” In other words, it will be subject to change, in part as the public reacts to it. Assuming the board does not bow to pressure from special interest groups, that adaptability is a good thing.

All in all, the state board’s philosophy toward school reform seems to be appropriate. Legislators should follow suit next year with a program of education improvement that recognizes much of what passed for reform in the past simply has not worked.