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Reforms won't help, teacher unions say

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia teachers unions resumed their attack on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's sprawling education reform bill Tuesday, alleging it wouldn't improve student achievement.

Judy Hale, president of the West Virginia Federation of Teachers, said reducing the number of faculty senate days, limiting teacher planning periods and stripping teachers of seniority privileges aren't the prescription to fix what ails West Virginia schools.

"This bill defies logic, and it defies research," Hale told state lawmakers.

Senate Education Committee members plan to vote on a substitute version of the governor's bill (SB359) on Thursday. Tomblin aides have been meeting with state school board members, state Superintendent Jim Phares, and organizations that represent teachers, principals and county school boards this week.

The revised bill is undergoing changes and hasn't been introduced.

"We haven't seen the committee substitute [bill]," said Senate Majority Leader John Unger. "I'm sure whatever we get won't be perfect, but I expect we'll pass an education reform bill this session."

Teachers remain wary, even if Tomblin revises the bill and incorporates some of their suggestions.

Under Tomblin's bill, for instance, faculty senate meetings would be cut from six meetings to one a year, Hale said. Teacher planning periods -- used by teachers to prepare lessons and meet privately with parents and students -- would be reduced from an hour to 30 minutes, she said.

"Studies have shown that increasing opportunities for teacher collaborations leads to increased student achievement," Hale said.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, criticized Tomblin's 179-page bill for changing teacher-hiring practices.

The legislation de-emphasizes the role seniority plays in hiring. Principals would have more say over faculty picks.

"No one has shown me the current system doesn't provide the most qualified person for the classroom," Lee told lawmakers.

Lee said Tomblin's proposal would make teacher hiring too subjective. "Grievances will run rampant in a system like this," he said.

Lee also took issue with Tomblin's bill for allowing the national Teach for America program to operate in West Virginia. The program places new college graduates in struggling schools.

Lee said state lawmakers should instead work on measures to keep West Virginia graduates from leaving West Virginia for teaching jobs in other states where they receive higher salaries.

"Our problem is an export problem," he said. "Clearly, in the long run, we have to address the salary issue."

Hale noted that Tomblin's bill allows schools to close and send large numbers of students to statewide basketball and other sports tournaments and still count the time as an instructional day.

"People need to decide what's a priority and what's not," Hale said.

State law already requires schools to permit students to leave school to watch high school sports tournaments. Tomblin's bill makes the practice optional.

Hale, a former middle school teacher, said Tomblin's bill ignores a key finding from an education efficiency audit released last year: The state Department of Education operates a "top-heavy, bloated bureaucracy." The education audit concluded that West Virginia has one of the most tightly controlled and centralized education systems in the nation.

"There isn't one sentence in the bill that deals with that issue," Hale said.

She said education changes must start at the Capitol Complex's Building 6, which houses the Department of Education. The department has declined to fill a number of administrative positions in recent months but has hired contract workers for the jobs.

"Maybe we should start with job descriptions. How many people are there and what do they do?" Hale said.

Unger, D-Berkeley, asked the governor's office to compile a list of Department of Education consultants and employee salaries.

"We have a bloated system sucking money out of the classrooms," he said. "If we want to do real education reform, we need to take it out of Charleston and put the resources where the students are."

Representatives of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and Business & Industry Council told lawmakers Tuesday they support Tomblin's education reform bill.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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