Much controversy has developed over Senate Bill 359 passed by the West Virginia Legislature to reform education in March 2013. After the education efficiency audit of 2012 and the rapid removal of the state Superintendent, people have become skeptical about the idea that efficiency and education can coexist.
Since the 1930s when the county-unit school system started under the Kump administration, schools have been governed through the 55 county boards of education. It was a step forward during the Great Depression when teachers were not being paid at all in local school districts.
Soon the bus transportation system started, hot lunches were provided and funds for education became the largest item on the budget in West Virginia and most other states in the United States. School boards control the largest payroll in 53 of 55 West Virginia counties, and the school budgets also include the largest transportation systems, food services and maintenance crews.
All this administrative responsibility fell to individuals not trained for business management. The inefficiencies that have developed should be no surprise - particularly in West Virginia. Dean of Education at WVU, Dr. Schrum, told me that West Virginia is the second most rural state in the Union, and that we have the most expensive transportation system per student. We also have one of the largest percentages of children in poverty, and the hot lunch poor children eat at school may be the only meal they have all day.
Senate Bill 359 supports effective methods of changing the obvious inefficiencies that were exposed by the state education audit in 2012. In the 21st century we do not need to duplicate services in all 55 counties. The eight Regional Education Service Areas, or RESA, can assume some of the responsibilities for training bus drivers, managing food and buying supplies. However, teacher pay is the big issue that has not been addressed by the Legislature. As long as the teacher pay scale in West Virginia is 47th in the nation, we will not be able to attract and keep the best teachers.
The Legislature has more work to do on education, but we can be very proud of the West Virginia four-year-old kindergarten program. It is one of the most innovative public programs in the nation. A hundred years ago other developed nations recognized that working mothers needed a safe place where their small children could learn, but the unrealistic ideal of American family life did not allow us to perceive this great need in the United States. Now West Virginia is making a commitment to the future of our most vulnerable citizens.