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State schools chief talks reform, defends teachers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One month into the job, West Virginia Schools Superintendent Jim Phares urged legislators Tuesday to avoid beating up teachers and administrators as they pursue major education changes this session.

Phares reminded the interim House-Senate Education Committee that the state school board has largely endorsed the driving force behind the reform push: a much-discussed audit that contrasted lagging student performance with hefty spending on a system rigid with top-heavy administration and inflexible rules.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat who sought the study, is expected to draw from its findings for his legislative agenda. The minority Republicans in the House of Delegates, meanwhile, list education as a top priority for the session, which begins Wednesday.

"We are committed to removing layers of bureaucracy and barriers to enable local initiative," Phares told the lawmakers.

Recently hired by the board, Phares also cited rankings that put West Virginia eighth-graders 47th nationally for math and reading, for instance, and fourth-graders 45th for math and 43rd for reading. He said that embracing the audit's recommendations should not come at the expense of the front-line staffers who hold the key to improving those standings.

"It's easy to be cynical as well as critical and quickly blame teachers and principals for this performance record. I want to say to you today: it's wrong to do so," Phares said. He added, "It is misguided because in fact we have classroom- and school-level assets that we ostracize when we are quick to criticize and to blame . . .  . It's time for all of us to stop beating them down."

While agreeing with the audit's targeting of bureaucracy, Phares noted that the board strongly supports a larger role for the eight Regional Education Service Agencies. Phares said these mid-level agencies, known as RESAs, can take the lead on teacher training while helping the 55 county school boards with purchasing contracts, energy conservation, shared administrative services and teacher recruitment.

"They're going to be our partner, and your partner, in building the capacity of schools and school districts," Phares said, adding, "It's obvious that RESAs are essential to our reform plans."

While some shared services may prove beneficial, House Minority Leader Tim Armstead said that's not quite the approach of GOP delegates. House Republicans netted 11 seats in November, boosting their ranks to 46 of 100 members, and aim to overhaul the education system with their newfound muscle.

"I think our position is very clear: we need to shift as much money back to the classroom as possible," said Armstead, R-Kanawha. "Simply going from the top level of bureaucracy to a mid-level of bureaucracy is not the solution."

Phares told the joint committee that his trips across West Virginia to visit county school boards revealed that they're on board with a major goal of the education push.

"There's one basic common theme that's running throughout the state: a return on our investment in education is a cause for concern for all of us," Phares said. "We are not performing at the level that you or our citizens are expecting."

Phares called on lawmakers to support the fight against such ills as truancy, drug addiction in the home, neglect and physical and sexual abuse. He recalled how after superstorm Sandy in October, when he was Randolph County's schools chief, "we had kids who came back to us who had not eaten in 10 days because they had not been in school."

"All of us must become agents for social change in our communities," Phares said. "All of us must stand up and be a voice for all the children who suffer from what the grown-ups in our world have allowed to happen to our most important resource."


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