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Teachers unions blast Tomblin school reform bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia teachers union leaders swiftly denounced Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's sprawling education reform bill Monday, saying the legislation punishes teachers and does little to raise student achievement.

"This is probably the ugliest bill I've seen in 30 years," said Judy Hale, president of the West Virginia Federation of Teachers.

The bill (SB359), which was introduced in the state Senate on Monday, de-emphasizes the role seniority plays in teacher hiring. Teachers also could wind up with shorter planning periods and be forced to work extra days beyond their 43-week contract period, union officials said.

"We are very disappointed," said West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee, after reviewing the 179-page bill. "We have the opportunity to make some changes to improve education and to increase student achievement. Instead, it appears we're looking at more punitive actions aimed at teachers."

Tomblin's bill follows a wide-ranging education audit that outlined ways the state could save money and bolster student test scores. The audit criticized the state Department of Education, saying it was overly bureaucratic and had too much control over county school systems.

Tomblin's public policy director, Hallie Mason, said the bill is designed to remove "obstacles" that "stifle flexibility" and hinder student achievement.

"Compared nationally, our test scores are slipping, and what we're doing isn't working," Mason said Monday. "This bill will set the stage for improving education whereby obstacles will be removed so that increases in student achievement will be made more quickly."

Teachers' union leaders said the governor's legislation doesn't tackle the biggest obstacle -- state-level bureaucracy.

"There's nothing that address the top-heavy bureaucracy," Hale said. "There's nothing about the bureaucracy and how it's taking money away from the classroom."

Instead, Monday's bill proposes numerous changes that teachers steadfastly oppose.

The legislation would overhaul teacher-hiring practices. County school boards would have to consider hiring recommendations from faculty and principals at schools with job openings. Seniority would remain a factor, but school boards also would weigh seven other criteria.

Teachers working in a particular county also would no longer have a leg up over job applicants from other counties.

Hale said the proposed changes make the hiring process too subjective, allowing county school boards to pick teachers for the wrong reasons.

"It takes us back to the days of nepotism and cronyism," Hale said. "They'll have the ability to hire their nephew or anyone else."

Mason said the bill removes one set of measures for hiring teachers, but keeps other criteria already being used by school boards to hire principals and some faculty.

Mason said the change is designed to ensure county school boards can compare "qualifications of all viable candidates."

Tomblin's bill also would pave the way for the Teach for America program to operate in West Virginia schools for the first time.

The organization takes recent college graduates who want to teach and places them in struggling schools. West Virginia teachers' unions oppose the program, saying it would take jobs away from state-native teacher prospects.

"Why aren't we focusing on home-grown teachers instead of bringing in teachers from out of state who are only going to stay a few years and move on?" Hale said. "It doesn't make sense to me."

Added Lee: "Lowering standards for teachers doesn't seem to me to be a way to improve student achievement."

Lee predicted that Tomblin's bill would slash teacher planning periods -- particularly in elementary schools -- from an hour to 30 minutes or less each day.

"Teachers need more time for collaboration and planning, not less," Lee said. "If you're going to talk about the things that improve student achievement, it's not the things in this bill."

Lee criticized the governor's bill for proposing changes to the minimum qualifications for West Virginia's schools superintendent.

The state school board requested the change, saying it hopes to broaden the applicant pool when it next starts a national search for a new schools chief.

State law now says the state schools superintendent must have a master's degree in education administration. Tomblin's bill would require a master's in any subject.

"Now, anyone with a master's degree can be state superintendent of schools," Lee said.

According to the governor's office, Tomblin's education reform bill also would:

• Allow public schools to expand pre-school programs and offer full-day instruction by the 2016-17 school year. The programs also would certify preschool teacher aides.

• Require elementary school teachers to complete rigorous reading instruction training programs to ensure more children can read by the third grade.

• Re-establish the state Workforce Planning Council to increase communication between higher education and K-12 schools. Create a Commission on Middle Grades to recommend ways to increase middle school student achievement. Another commission would review county school board administrative costs.

• Decrease the number of teachers who get "bumped" out of jobs when school systems eliminate positions.

• Remove the cap that now reimburses up to 200 teachers a year who secure National Board certification. Tomblin's bill also would pay teachers who renew their certification.

• Expand a teacher scholarship program that forgives loans for teachers who take jobs in subject areas or parts of the state with "critical needs."

• Give county school boards more flexibility with their calendars to ensure schools offer 180 days of instruction.

• Overhaul Regional Education Service Agencies.

• Expand a pilot program designed to improve Charleston elementary schools.

• Require college-readiness standards for high school juniors by the 2014-15 school year.

State Board of Education members and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce supported Tomblin's bill Monday.

"To us, this looks like a bill all West Virginians should embrace," said Steve Roberts, the chamber's president. "It allows children to learn. It allows teachers to teach. And it encompasses many of the great strengths that are in place in other states."

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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