CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's education leaders were pleased to see education reform take center stage during Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's State of the State address on Wednesday evening.
"I have to pinch myself. I can't believe it," state Board of Education President Wade Linger said after the address. "To hear a speech like that and see how seriously he's taken education reform this session, and that he's embraced the audit findings and state board's response, is certainly welcome.
"We look forward to continuing to work with the governor's office and the Legislature to move from where we are now to see reforms enacted and start seeing benefits for our children," Linger said.
Tomblin praised the education efficiency audit's work on highlighting the lack of county control in the state's school system. Teachers should have more say in professional development and hiring, and state code will be changed to allow counties to choose an alternative school calendar in order to provide more instruction, Tomblin said.
Tomblin said more parents and community members should become involved with education in order to tackle the state's truancy crisis. Targeting students at a younger age with reading intervention is crucial, he said.
"It was right on target. He not only challenged the board and the teacher groups, but he also challenged families and everyone in the process because we are all in this together," Linger said. "And I hope that everyone in this process will take it to heart."
Tomblin also announced in his speech that scholarship programs, including the Promise and other state-funded student financial aid, would be protected even as budget cuts burden state agencies.
"This action is vital to maintaining the affordability and accessibility of a college education for all West Virginians, including current and future students," said Paul Hill, chancellor for the state Higher Education Policy Commission. "This is especially important given the need for more college graduates in order to sustain and ultimately diversify our state's economy.
"We, as a state, need to keep the doors of a college education open to all citizens, especially those working toward a better tomorrow for themselves, their families and their communities," he said.
The governor focused on the connection between qualified teachers and student performance. Other qualifications - not just seniority -- should matter when hiring new teachers, and the state will now reward teachers who seek to renew national certification in addition to new nationally certified teachers.
Leaders of the state's teachers unions, Dale Lee of the West Virginia Education Association and Judy Hale of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, were both happy to see education at the forefront, but said attention to teachers' pay is still needed.
"Half of the governor's speech was about education, and I'm excited about that because we need to focus on education in West Virginia. But, we can't get the best teachers in every classroom because our salaries are ranked 48th in the country. We can't compete," Hale said. "I think there's money in the system to redistribute. The governor talked about how the student population has dropped.
"Well, what we're going to find is that the teacher population has also declined, but administration has significantly increased," Hale said. "We're spending the money in the wrong direction when it should be put into classrooms."
Lee called Tomblin's focus on hiring practices for teachers "the most contentious part of the speech," saying a lack of highly qualified teachers is "a direct reflection of low pay compared to surrounding states.
"We're excited to hear education will be a primary focus of the session, and teachers across the state can agree with many of the things he said tonight. Teachers know we have to put children first in education reform, and we want to continue to have qualified, certified teachers in front of all of our children in West Virginia," Lee said.
As of 10 p.m. Wednesday, state Superintendent of Schools Jim Phares had not responded to a request for comment.Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.m...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.