Schools Need A Fighter

West Virginia Board of Education members have more flexibility than in the past in selecting a new state superintendent of schools. For example, as a result of legislation this spring, the person they select no longer is required to have a master’s degree in education administration.

Allowing selection of the best candidate available, without worrying unduly about degrees, is a good thing – because state board members may well want to hire a retired professional boxer to lead West Virginia public schools. Someone able to take a beating, then come back to dish one out, may be just the thing.

Rest assured, if education reform is pursued properly, the state superintendent will be bloodied in the process.

Last December, board members replaced former Superintendent Jorea Marple in a controversial move. They installed James Phares as superintendent, with the understanding the job might last only until a successful national search for a long-term leader could be concluded.

Phares agreed to that. Whether he will apply again for the job is not known. He has adopted the laudable attitude that while the search is in progress, “there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Indeed there is. While the Mountain State has some good public schools, it is plagued by more than our share of awful ones, as well as quite a few in the mediocre category. In some measures of education quality, West Virginia lags badly behind most of the rest of the nation.

It is easy to blame “special interests” for the problem. It is true that some laws and practices adopted because of pressure from the state’s two teachers unions have held back progress. State legislators made a start in changing that earlier this year.

But it is not the unions the new superintendent will have to battle. It’s the toughest special interests of all – moms, dads and the rest of their communities.

How will parents react when told their children are not being promoted because they don’t read well enough? How will communities deal with suggestions children would be served better by consolidated schools?

What happens when county school boards determine teachers everyone seems to like are not very good at educating children?

And how will local boards – elected, remember, by the people of their counties – handle being told that if they don’t do their jobs, the state will take over? On that one, we have some evidence; state officials have taken over several county school systems in the past. It would not surprise me if state Board of Education members have other counties on their radar screens right now.

Real school reform will not happen in West Virginia unless we all recognize that we can do much better for our children. Because no one likes to be told how to raise sons and daughters, that will be an unpleasant process.

In selecting a new leader for West Virginia schools, then, state board members may well want to look for someone with a fondness for battle – on behalf of our children.

Myer can be reached at: