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Statehouse Beat: Education reform in jeopardy

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Poor Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. He spent the first 20-some months of his administration putting out brush fires left by his predecessor -- only to turn around and find his key legislative agenda for his first "real" session as governor sabotaged.

By all indications, Tomblin was preparing to make public education reform, using the Public Works LLC education audit as the platform, the hallmark of his 2013 legislative agenda.

With Tomblin "acting as" governor in 2011, and facing election years in both 2011 and 2012, the 2013 session was to have been his first opportunity to really wield influence as governor.

While those who maneuvered to remove Jorea Marple as superintendent of schools may believe they were trying to help Tomblin by removing a possible obstacle to enacting the reforms recommended in the education audit, many Statehouse observers believe the whole Board of Education imbroglio complicates matters to the point where Tomblin may not even be able to pursue an aggressive education agenda in 2013.

While the influence of teachers' unions in the Legislature will be diminished in the coming session, the board's misdeeds will likely stiffen their resistance to any proposed changes -- which is unfortunate, considering that American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and West Virginia Education Association representatives had been meeting with Tomblin aides to come up with a workable education reform package.

(Certainly, Tuesday's WVEA rally on behalf of Marple suggest the unions at the moment are not in a forgiving mood.)

Likewise, even reform-friendly legislators may be forced to distance themselves from any proposals endorsed by a Board of Education whose credibility has been shattered by the firing fiasco.

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History lesson: Recently, I bemoaned how the Legislature failed to include a provision in the gubernatorial secession amendment to eliminate the month delay in the start of the regular session in years after governors are re-elected.

I was reminded that gubernatorial secession also effectively ended the autonomy of the state Board of Education.

With nine members serving staggered nine-year terms, the board was autonomous, since barring mass resignations or health issues, any one governor would not be able to appoint more than four of the nine board members.

That went out the window with gubernatorial succession giving any re-elected governor the power to appoint a majority of members on the board, as we saw when the so-called "Gang of Five" Joe Manchin appointees voted to fire Marple, (including Manchin's wife, Gayle).

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History lesson, part II: For some, events of the past few days harkened back to a power grab then-Gov. Gaston Caperton attempted in 1989, when he got legislation passed dividing up state government into seven departments -- including a new Department of Education and the Arts.

Then, as now, the department oversaw agencies including Culture and History, Educational Broadcasting Authority, the Library Commission, Archives and History, and Rehabilitation Services. Initially, it also was over the state college and university systems -- authority since shifted to the Higher Education Policy Commission and Council for Community and Technical College Education.

As envisioned by Caperton, Education and the Arts was to oversee all public education in the state, from pre-school to grad school.

However, voters saw otherwise. They rejected by a resounding margin a constitutional amendment that year that would have placed the Board of Education (and thus, public schools) under the auspices of Education and the Arts. Only 12 percent of voters supported the amendment.

In anticipation of that failed consolidation, Caperton had already moved the Center for Professional Development (which oversees continuing education programs for teachers and public school administrators) under Education and the Arts, where it has remained.

The education audit points out the inefficiency of that arrangement, and proposes moving the center back under the Board of Education.

However, it also calls for expanding the role of the secretary of Education and the Arts as a watchdog and advocate for the executive branch over the Board of Education.

It goes so far as to mention Secretary Kay Goodwin by name, calling her a "forceful and talented exponent of that role."

Some have latched on to that as evidence that the Manchin-backed school board members are trying to achieve through practice what Caperton could not achieve by law.

However, as long as the board is a constitutionally independent body, any influence the secretary could have over it would be fleeting.

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Finally, Charles Riecks sends word that the August 2013 issue of Trains magazine will be a special issue devoted to railroading in West Virginia.

Topics planned for the issue include: main lines and operations, coal mines and branch-line operations, railroad towns, traditions and heritage railroads, a West Virginia photo gallery, and a map comparing West Virginia's railroads in 1940 with those of today.

The timing is ideal, with the opening of the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve expected to spike ridership on Amtrak's Cardinal service.

Speaking of, Riecks also notes that the Prince Railroad Station Authority, created by the Legislature in March to operate and upgrade the Amtrak station closest to the Boy Scouts camp, is on track (pun intended), with David Gay of Beckley serving as chairman.

The authority is working with faculty at the West Virginia University College of Law to transfer ownership of the historic station from CSX.

The station currently boards about 3,200 passengers a year, a number expected to more than double with shuttle service to the Scouts camp, located about seven miles away.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.

 


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