Lawmakers get look at education audit
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A wide-ranging review of West Virginia's public school system has arrived just as lawmakers prepare to launch their regular session for 2012.
But the leaders of the Legislature's education committees aren't sure whether the audit and its scores of recommendations will fuel proposals during the 60-day session, which begins Wednesday.
"I can't imagine, with the report just being released, that we will automatically accept their findings and start moving in any direction without further study,'' House Education Chairwoman Mary Poling, D-Barbour, said Sunday.
Poling's Senate counterpart largely agreed.
"I think there may be some legislative action this year, but the bulk of it will be next year or when we've had the chance to really review it for ourselves on the legislative side,'' said Senate Education Chair Robert Plymale, D-Wayne.
Lawmakers must also wait until Wednesday's State of the State address to hear whether Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will include any of the review's findings in his session agenda.
Tomblin commissioned the consulting firm Public Works to conduct the review. It scrutinized the Department of Education and several other state-level entities, including the School Building Authority. It also brought in another firm, MGT, to review a sampling of the 55 county school systems and the regional education service agencies.
The audit report released Friday describes a tightly regulated, bureaucrat-heavy system with limited flexibility or voter accountability. It noted the state's lagging student performance despite sizable spending on education -- $3.5 billion during the 2010 budget year. It offers dozens of recommendations to improve student performance and working conditions for teachers while reorganizing the system and cutting costs by around $90 million annually.
Topics addressed in the audit include teacher evaluations. Plymale and Poling both expect lawmakers to tackle that subject during the coming session, but not necessarily because of the review's recommendations. A special task force recently studied ways to evaluate educators regularly, and a handful of states are conducting a pilot project as a result.
Education Department officials are reviewing the report, spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said Sunday. So are the groups that represent teachers, the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia.
WVEA President Dale Lee said he hoped the audit's discussion of teacher pay catches the attention of lawmakers and other state officials. It found that West Virginia cannot compete regionally or nationally with the salaries it offers, even after two rounds of raises since 2008.
Though the report does not recommend specific pay levels, it notes that "it hardly would be surprising to observe that West Virginia cannot hope to attract and retain the highest-quality teachers when it pays them at almost the lowest levels in the nation.''
"Even compared to other education personnel in West Virginia, it would be fair to say that, if what they are paid is an indication, then teachers are the least valued part of the state's education structure,'' the report said.
But Lee also questioned the accuracy of some findings. He cited comparison between West Virginia schools and those in highly populated urban areas.
"Certainly schools in rural WV aren't the same as they are in a Boston or a New York City,'' Lee said.
The report does note the state's rural nature, and found that it may explain the number of administrative staffers when compared to the student population.
"It is hard for parents to place their children in a better school if that school is 100 miles away,'' the report said. "And, in any event, West Virginia needs to do more to attract, train, and retain the best teachers in every school.''
More than a dozen recommendations focus on harnessing technology to allow students to "take any course they want, from any teacher, anywhere in the state - or the world.'' Plymale said classroom technology is another topic that lawmakers could consider this session. He blamed the system's rigid structure for a lack of progress in this area.
"Certainly, I'd like to see something on that as quickly as possible,'' Plymale said.