First, lawmakers made a mistake in attempting to create sweeping legislation in on fell swoop. The education reform bill clocks in at 179 pages, covering all manner of topics. The legislature might have more success breaking these topics into multiple bills that deal with specific issues within the field of education. One piece of legislation encompassing an entire gamut of changes would place legislators in the unenviable position of having to vote on a bill that may contain many problematic suggestions and only a few real solutions. Additionally, some lawmakers may feel compelled to vote down a potentially good piece of legislation because it contains a few objectionable portions. Either way, a piecemeal approach would be more suitable.
The reform bill also suggests making a change in the hiring practices of schools, requiring, "... vacancies in professional positions of employment [be filled] on the basis of the applicant with the highest qualifications." In hiring a professional employee, consideration would be given to: appropriate certification, amount of relevant experience to the position, levels of education, academic achievement, other relevant specialized training, former performance evaluations, and seniority.
I believe this is a necessary change if West Virginia wants to retain quality instructors in its classrooms. Several state institutions of higher learning produce teachers, but many of them leave because finding a job here is difficult because seniority is the sole determinant. Examining the qualities set forth in this bill would provide for hiring the best possible applicant for a job.
Leadership from the American Federal of Teachers (AFT) and the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) vehemently objected to this portion of the bill, with AFT president Judy Hale commenting, "It takes us back to the days of nepotism and cronyism, ... They'll have the ability to hire their nephew or anyone else."
Hale's comments border on the ridiculous. Does a possibility exist an individual would be hired because of nepotism? Yes. However, what Hale doesn't divulge is that teachers in the state are given jobs often because they have simply been around longer than anyone else. Schools are forced to hire a teacher who is inadequate for the job. Also, labor representatives have a conspiracy theory mindset that would have West Virginians believe principals of schools would hand out jobs to anyone they like with no oversight or supervision when applicants in the state would still have the ability to file a grievance.
SB359 also augments the current status of critical teaching positions that currently go unfilled. The bill would permit programs such as Teach for America to supply educators to take on jobs where no qualified teacher exists. Those who wish to teach in the state would have to hold a bachelor's degree, pass all the certification tests any other teacher in the state must pass, be of good moral character, pass a background check, and receive specialized training from Teach for America. Additionally, schools would develop a professional support team to work with these teachers to provide assistance and guidance to these teachers filling critical roles and providing a recommendation at the end of the school year to determine if that teacher would be permitted to return. Other temporary forms of licensing would be available with those who have the education and skills necessary to provide instruction to students.
Like the issue of hiring practices, I consider this to be a much needed change. Many of West Virginia's rural and border counties have unfilled positions where it would only make sense to find applicants with specializations to work in those subject areas. This means of providing an education to students will be far more productive than our current system, which allows anyone with an education degree to act as a long-term substitute. How can anyone attempt to explain to students and parents why someone with a degree in math education would be teaching a course in literature? Would you want your child learning chemistry from someone with a degree in social studies education?
Perhaps looking for ammunition in a gun otherwise loaded with blanks, WVEA president Dale Lee intimated his belief to the Charleston Gazette that the bill may diminish a teacher's planning period of teachers to '30 minutes or less'. I'm unsure how Lee would derive such a prediction, considering SB359 mandates
"Every teacher who is regularly employed ... shall be provided at least one planning period within each school instructional day to be used to complete necessary preparations for the instruction of pupils. Such planning period shall be the length of the shortest class taught by the classroom teacher and may not be less than thirty minutes."
Other productive pieces of SB359 include:
- Providing generous pay incentives to teachers who receive their National Board Certification.
- Improved elements that would provide meaningful professional development to assist teachers in a continued education.
- Scholarship opportunities to those local students who major in education and stay in West Virginia to teach.
- Loan assistance to West Virginia native teachers who agree to stay in state.
- More flexibility in allowing individual counties create a school calendar that will permit a full 180 day schedule to provide the maximum amount of education.
I hope the legislature will consider addressing other significant issues facing our educational process: lowering the student to teacher ratio, serious investment into vocational and technical training, the slow phasing out of unnecessary administrative positions at the state board of education, and a more flexible curriculum to provide a myriad of course offerings to secondary students.