Teachers Unions Take on Tomblin’s Education Bill - WBOY.com: Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

Teachers Unions Take on Tomblin’s Education Bill

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It was almost as if the representatives from the state's teachers unions didn't get the memo.

The one that says to scream and spit and pound the pulpit in a crowded committee room when disagreeing with a massive piece of legislation on the line.

Sure, there was passion and conviction when union representatives spoke to the Senate Education Committee March 5, but they calmly dropped hints that the common goal of education reform was on the horizon and the road to get there was being paved peacefully behind closed doors.

Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, said he knows emotions will rise when discussing the nearly 200-page bill introduced on behalf of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to reform the state's public education system.

"That's natural when you have bills of this nature and of this magnitude," Plymale said.

The bill was first brought up in the committee Feb. 28, with a clear plan of how to digest it all – page by page, section by section and issue by issue, Plymale said. He also scheduled two-a-day committee meetings March 5 and March 7 to make time for speakers and questions.

He said March 5 he still expected the committee to be able to pass the bill March 7, but not without changes.

"Where we see some issues or problems in the bill, as it is written, (we're) getting with the governor's office and other groups to try to come up with a (way to) resolve to that," Plymale said.

Tomblin himself said March 5 the legislation has been more than a year in the making, and he knows any time a bill that big is introduced, changes are inevitable. Tomblin said he knows the bill has a lot of support, but there are "tweaks that have to come with it."

Tomblin has stayed steadfast in his convictions guided by last year's education efficiency audit and unveiled during his Feb. 13 State of the State Address: asking all new elementary school teachers to be specially trained in reading; requiring every county to offer full-day, 4-year-old preschool within the next three years; offering counties a flexible school calendar; and changing current teacher hiring practices.

Judy Hale, president of the American Federation of Teachers – West Virginia, listed reasons why she believes the bill is "laced with contradictions," including moves Hale said lower teacher standards, which will not raise academic achievement.

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee agreed to many of the same concerns with the measure, and he frequently referenced a yet-unseen committee substitute to the bill that is coming from negotiations with Tomblin's staff, committee staff and education stakeholders.

"I know we're working on language to do that," Lee said of potential changes to teacher planning periods.

"I believe we've come to corrective language on that," Lee later said about a much-criticized section of the bill that deals with holiday pay for teachers.

"Until I see the committee substitute, I can't totally say ‘Yes, this is something we will agree on,'" Lee said to open his speech to lawmakers.

Hale said some of the things she discussed "have been worked out."

"We have been meeting almost non-stop with the governor's office as well as the chairman and vice chairman," she said.

Both Hale and Lee said they are hungry for education reform, and there are things in the bill they like.

Hale applauded the proposal to extend pre-K to a full-day program and the reading initiatives.

"His loan forgiveness program will help us bring new, young teachers into areas of critical needs and shortage areas," Hale said.

She also spoke positively of the proposal to reward Nationally Board Certified teachers and the career tech initiative to help students decide how and when to enter the work force.

"But after these five proposals, the bill takes a nose dive," Hale said.

She said she thinks the discussion has gotten to the point where things are going to "get down and dirty" and cited the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce's recently launched website, wvedreformfacts.com.

"I guess the Chamber put up a web page against us," Hale said. "I don't think I've seen them to very many local or state board of education meetings.

"All of a sudden, everybody's an expert on education because they went to school."

Hale said she does not think the state's education budget is being used efficiently, and it should be directed to the classroom.

"We owe it to the people of West Virginia to create a better education system," she said. "We will meet to work with you day and night, and at the end of the day, we will still not agree on every sentence, but we would like to be able to look back later and say that we did what was best for the children of West Virginia."

Lee said one thing everyone agrees on is that the state's early childhood program needs strengthened, and he wanted to do everything possible to be sure students receive 180 days of learning per year. He also said he applauds Tomblin's staff for wanting to strengthen reading skills at the third-grade level and the teacher loan forgiveness proposals.

"We have to stop blaming teachers for all the ills of public education," Lee said.

He claimed that the absolute cream of the crop, very best teachers from throughout the country could go into a school but if the poverty, truancy and parental involvement issues had not yet been addressed, "those teachers won't make a difference."

"It's time for us to put our kids at the center of reform," Lee said. "I know that we'll continue to work with you in the Senate and in the House on strengthening the bill so that our kids in West Virginia get the absolute best."

Both Hale and Lee spent most of their time pointing specifically to sections and lines within the bill as it was introduced that they hope will not make it into law.

"You cannot raise academic achievement by lowering teacher standards," Hale said. "You cannot downsize education bureaucracy by up-sizing the bureaucracy in (Regional Education Service Agencies), you can't run a better school system if you hire an administrator who has never worked in the field of education and you cannot expect educators to embrace reform by stripping away their rights and benefits."

Hale said she was "mystified" by State Superintendent Jim Phares telling lawmakers last week that the teacher hiring process was not working. She cited comments he made to a legislative subcommittee Oct. 9, claiming the hiring practices procedure was working well.

"Some of you might remember this because he prefaced this comment with ‘I'm not just saying this because Judy Hale is in the room,'" she said.

"Just because we are 47th in health care, Senator (Ron) Stollings, in this state, does that mean that we have bad hospitals and bad doctors?" Hale asked the Democratic representative from Boone County who also is a physician.

Hale questioned the allocation of education funds throughout the state.

"We need to raise academic achievement, but we need to do this by driving money and resources to the classroom," she said. "And we have done just the opposite of that in the last 12 to 15 years, and it has not worked."

Hale suggested additional training and time during the day for the current mentor program to grow. She also pointed out that students come to school today with issues that didn't exist 25 years ago, such as poverty and drug addiction.

"God bless you, Senator (John) Unger, for the special committee on child poverty," she said. "We should be employing more people to deal with these issues – not adding it to the bureaucracies of RESAs."

And as for the battle the AFT-WV has waged over holiday pay for teachers, Hale said she now believes it was never Tomblin's intent to take paid holidays from education employees, but she has a different interpretation with how the bill is written than what Tomblin's staff has suggested.

She also takes issue with the hiring process and faculty senate meetings.

"The bill eliminates the existing law that allows faculty senates to interview candidates for vacancies," she said. "Additionally this bill now only requires one faculty senate meeting per year."

Both Hale and Lee dislike the changes to teacher planning periods written into the bill.

"All the research shows that prepared teachers produce higher academic success among students," Hale said.

They both believe the way the bill is written now to allow county superintendents to transfer employees throughout the school year spells trouble, too. And Hale had everyone's attention when she got to the school calendar section of the bill and pointed out that superintendents are allowed to bring an entire school to Charleston for a week of state basketball tournaments and count those days as instructional.

"Just last night at the Nicholas County Board of Education meeting, they stated that the county high school would be closed Thursday – this Thursday – for the girls' basketball tournament and again on Friday if they win," Hale said. "Nicholas County has already had 11 snow days I believe.

"I think people need to decide what's priority and what's not."

Nicholas County Schools were closed for snow March 6.

Lee said one of the things that bothers him is asking the chief executive for schools to not need a master's degree in education administration or experience in the public schools, as the bill is now written. He also said he has "some major concerns" with the idea of removing the superintendent's salary caps from statute.

"I also want to remind you that several years ago, West Virginia did a working conditions survey – many of you will remember that," Lee said. "One of the No. 1 areas that teachers across the state said needed improved was communication.

"My statement then was that I would've liked to have seen the same survey results when we had every month faculty senates as opposed to every other month."

Lee also expressed concern with inviting Teach for America teachers into the state, for several reasons. Lee said pushing for more teacher training in one part of the bill does not align with allowing a person with five weeks of training and who will be gone in two years to be in the same position. He also said more than 600 classrooms in the state are currently without certified teachers.

"Our problem is not a teacher shortage from our colleges being able to produce more teachers," Lee said. "Our problem is an export problem. Too many of our young teachers are leaving the state because they can make more money in other positions in the state and in any of the surrounding states."

Lee said he talked with his counterpart in Delaware who said $10,000 for every Teach for America instructor goes to Tech for America. Lee suggested that if counties have money to spend on Teach for America, they should invest it in substitute teachers or offer it for teacher certification in other areas of needed.

"Ultimately, in the long run, we have to address the salary issue," Lee said.

He pointed out that teachers and other support staff have summer jobs and they need some stability in the school calendar.

"If you don't know what could happen during the year and you end up with a situation where you're going well into July, you're really cutting into the livelihood of many first-year teachers, service personnel and many experienced teachers," Lee said. "There's a real easy fix to that: Pay people what they should earn."

The Senate Education Committee also heard from RESA 6 Executive Director Nick Zervos, former educator Mary Cardin, the West Virginia Professional Educators, the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, the West Virginia Business and Industry Council, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and Pastor Matthew Watts of Grace Bible Church in Charleston.