CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Public education reform dominated Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's third State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature Wednesday, with a variety of proposals intended to improve the state's 49th ranking in student achievement.
Tomblin said current benchmarks of a high school graduation rate of only 78 percent, and the nation's highest percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds who are not in school or in the workforce, are unacceptable.
"Even with all the good things happening in our schools, our student achievement is falling behind -- and that is not acceptable," Tomblin said.
"Education in West Virginia must change, and that change begins now," he stated.
"During this legislative session, let's work together and take bold action so the next generation of West Virginians will have the passion, skills, and knowledge to change our world," Tomblin told legislators assembled in the House chambers Wednesday evening.
Initiatives Tomblin proposed Wednesday include:
• Requiring all counties to offer full-day pre-kindergarten to 4 year olds.
• Assure that all children are reading on grade level at the end of the third grade.
"If a child cannot read at grade level at the end of the third grade, bad things happen," Tomblin said. "They will remain poor readers in high school, and they will be more likely to become high school dropouts."
• Require elementary school teachers to complete specialized training in teaching reading.
• Assure that all high school graduates are prepared to join the workforce, or enter college through a seamless transition process that will reach down to students in middle school.
"If our schools prepare students for college and a career, every graduate will be ready to go to work in West Virginia," he said.
• Change hiring practices so that seniority is not the primary determining factor in hiring or promoting teachers.
"Current hiring practices in our state do not guarantee that the best teacher is the one actually selected for the job," Tomblin said. "In fact, in many cases, it prevents otherwise good teachers from even qualifying for the job."
He added, "Seniority always must be an important consideration, but seniority should not be the only decisive or controlling action of hiring practices."
• Take steps to move decision-making from the Board of Education central office to local school boards, beginning with a proposal to give local boards more authority over setting county school system calendars.
Tomblin said he wants school calendars that assure students receive a full 180 instructional days, not the 170 days that students have averaged in recent years.
• Expand technology to promote individualized learning, including the Project 24 program led by former Gov. Bob Wise.
While education reform proposals dominated Tomblin's 44-minute speech, he also addressed efforts to reduce overcrowding in state's prisons and regional jails, and to deal with the blight of substance abuse in the state.
Citing a report on overcrowding by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, Tomblin noted, "What we learned was simple: Substance abuse is a huge part of prison overcrowding, and the high re-offending rate intensifies the problem."
Likewise, while reviewing economic development accomplishments of the past three years, including the reopening of the South Charleston stamping plant, Tomblin addressed only one new initiative, a program to remediate former mining and manufacturing sites for new development.
Tomblin also only briefly referenced the state's coal and natural gas industries, calling the coal industry an integral part of the state, and reiterating his vow to fight the federal Environmental Protection Agency and its "misguided attempts to cripple this industry."
Tomblin did call for toughening natural gas pipeline safety standards in light of the pipeline explosion in Sissonville, proposing fines of up to $200,000 a day for violations.
Tomblin also stressed the state's continuing fiscal responsibility, including making $75 million in spending cuts in the proposed 2013-14 state budget, a budget he noted is balanced with no new taxes.
"Balancing our budget sends the right signal to businesses -- that West Virginia is stable. But we must do more," Tomblin said. "We must continue to focus on job creation, lowering the cost of doing business, and eliminating inequities in our system."
Tomblin closed his speech by recognizing the state's upcoming 150th anniversary.
"The Mountain State was born during the national firestorm of civil strife; 150 years ago this year, West Virginia set out on its own journey with hope and promise," he said. "We survived many challenges to get to where we are today -- a place we call home. As we come together to celebrate our state's 150th anniversary on June 20th, let's celebrate our history, knowing some of her best days lie ahead."
Reach Phil Kabler at ph...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.