Legislature: Schools, prisons, etc.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The two biggest problems facing the 2013 Legislature are West Virginia's prison overcrowding nightmare and pathetic learning levels among Mountain State school students.
So far, the Senate under President Jeff Kessler and House under Speaker Rick Thompson seem to be facing the dilemmas intelligently.
Back in the 1970s, West Virginia had only about 1,000 convicts, but the number soared past 7,000, thanks to harsh drug laws and the lock-'em-up mentality. West Virginians didn't turn seven times more criminal, but enforcement became seven times more vengeful. At the current rate of growth, the inmate population is projected to reach 10,000.
Now the state faces the dismal prospect of building another $200 million prison or finding a wiser solution.
A reform plan by Gov. Tomblin would cut cell occupancy by putting more nonviolent felons on probation or parole -- through early release, closer supervision and mandatory drug treatment. The state's new drug courts -- 20 for adults, 16 for juveniles -- likewise offer hope to rescue addicts and return them to worthwhile lives at low cost.
Go for it, we say. Only dangerous people should be locked in steel cages. Keeping the nonviolent free and productive in society is better for offenders, for taxpayers and the whole state.
Every study ranks West Virginia students near the bottom in knowledge and standardized test scores. State schools are failing to prepare youths for the high-tech Information Age that is sweeping the planet. Future careers are uncertain for many of them.
State teacher unions won't accept any blame for this problem, and focus mostly on getting higher teacher pay and making it nearly impossible to remove unfit teachers.
A statewide education audit recommended giving local county school boards more control -- but county boards produced the current mess, and their schools frequently are seized for inferiority.
Tomblin's reform bill would weaken seniority as the chief factor in teacher hiring. Also, it would open the door for idealistic young Teach for America volunteers to fill West Virginia classroom vacancies. It would establish statewide full-day preschool for 4-year-olds. It would try to force counties to provide a full 180 days of instruction.
We aren't sure whether law changes can improve the state's poor learning levels -- but legislators must try.
Expanding Medicaid under America's new national health reform would provide care for 120,000 "working poor" West Virginians who now lack insurance. It would bring $500 million federal funds into the state and create about 6,000 jobs. Why, for heaven's sake, aren't state leaders grabbing this opportunity?
Finally, can legislators do anything to rescue vital county library systems now devastated by a state Supreme Court ruling that deprived them of school money?