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WV education reform bill on to full House of Delegates

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Despite long meetings to hammer out compromises and amendments, it looks like the governor's education reform bill may soon pass the full Legislature.

The bill passed another hurdle March 19 when the House Education Committee passed the bill unanimously and without any additional amendments. The bill was then reported to the floor of the House of Delegates when the body convened at 5 p.m. the same day.

But passing it unanimously doesn't mean delegates didn't question some provisions already in the bill.

Committee counsel spent about 30 minutes explaining the bill to members of the committee, who then spent about 40 minutes asking questions.

Delegate Ron Fragale, D-Harrison, got the ball rolling by asking about school calendars. Language in the bill would extend the school year from 43 to 48 weeks and allow school districts to determine their own start and end dates, so long as there is a four week break between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next.

Several delegates asked about provisions in the bill related to college and career readiness standards. Jim Phares, state superintendent of schools, said the West Virginia Department of Education is looking at different ways to implement some of those requirements.

"There are several approaches we're looking at right now," Phares told the committee. "The college and career readiness is a rather complex issue.

"The next generation standards are being aligned with (Southern Regional Education Board) standards and common core standards."

Part of those college and career readiness components is making sure students can read at grade level. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in his State of the State address Feb. 13 he'd like to see all students reading on grade level by the third grade.

But as Delegate Denise Campbell, D-Randolph, pointed out, in-school reading specialists are often the first to go when schools are forced to cut their budgets. But Phares said the bill makes it a point to train education majors in higher education institutions to be proficient in teaching reading, among other subjects.

"The intent of the bill is to not diminish reading specialists in the classroom, but to make all elementary teachers more proficient in the instruction of reading," he said.

Wade Linger, president of the West Virginia School Board, said Tomblin is taking a three-pronged approach to his education agenda. Reading proficiency is just one piece of the overall puzzle.

"As a matter of explanation, within the governor's overall education agenda, he has three legs to the stool," Linger said to the committee. "One is his executive order, and we've seen that already with the establishment of the middle schools administration.

"The governor sent a letter to the state board asking us to do some things that don't require changes to the law. The reading was included. We have begun that process. We are developing specific rules with emphasis on reading in kindergarten through third grade."

The legislation also moves to remove the current cap on the salary of the state superintendent of schools that's in code. Phares said removing the cap would attract more candidates to the job.

"What we're trying to do … is remove as many restrictions from the requirements from state superintendent that will allow maximum flexibility as we go to the national search," Phares said. "That was a part of the list of restrictive wording in there we asked to be taken out."

The superintendent of schools currently is paid $175,000. Current law requires the superintendent to have a master's degree in education administration and five years' experience in administration. However, Fragale argued changing the requirements lowered the bar. But Linger said the change would allow the state to attract a wider variety of candidates for the superintendent job.

"We don't see this as lowering the bar," Linger said. "We see it as allowing more flexibility. The current law requires a master's in education administration. That's a very, very specific degree.

"There are a lot of qualified public educators out there who are leaders in education who don't have that specific degree. That's all the reason for that. We're not trying to lower the bar. That's a specific degree that's pretty specific to West Virginia.

"It is restrictive," Linger added. "There is no reason to assume that the state board is looking to lower standards. We just want to widen the net of people at least eligible to apply for the job."

Overall, delegates said they are satisfied with the bill. Delegate Suzette Raines, R-Kanawha, said the bill is a "monumental step" in reforming the state's pubic education system and she anticipates the House of Delegates will pass the bill.

After the Senate's unanimous passage of the bill March 18, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued a statement calling it "landmark legislation."

The bill has been reported to the floor of the House of Delegates and is scheduled for first reading Wednesday.