CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As members of the West Virginia legislature await word about a possible start date for the special session to address education reform, Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, is expressing concern about what he characterized as a virtual absence of information from the state Senate leadership regarding possible discussion topics and parameters that may be in place, when lawmakers reconvene.
Baldwin told MetroNews he has been made aware of press releases and public statements pertaining to various education-related issues, but has had no direct discussions with Senate leaders about those issues.
“There’s been no formal communication that we have received, really, or informal communication about when we may come back or working together to build consensus on — if and when we come back — can we compromise? There’s been none of that,” said Baldwin. “We’re getting pretty close to that time for May interims now, just two weeks away, and I would expect that if folks in power do not come to a compromise amongst themselves, quickly, that you’ll probably see the special session delayed until the next interim.”
According to Baldwin, there has been speculation among his colleagues about the overall premise of the session, which he said may be predicated on a familiar template, including some unresolved funding questions.
“The initial proposal, Senate Bill 451 — which it sounds like they want to go back to that again — if memory serves me, that was about a $150 million bill, and that includes a pay raise, and that pay raise money has been set aside but that’s all that’s been set aside, as far as I know. So, how are we going to pay for the rest of this?”
Baldwin said the feedback he received from residents and educators during state-sponsored listening sessions and other public gatherings, earlier this year, reinforced his belief that meaningful education reform in West Virginia is possible.
“We heard some great ideas about new things that we can try that aren’t politically divisive issues, where you just want to check a box, like (charter schools and education savings accounts) are, but things that have been helpful in other areas, and even in some pilot programs in West Virginia that have not been implemented on a larger scale,” he said.
“If we want to encourage innovation in schools, which everybody says that we want to do, why don’t we fund our innovation zones, which already exist but have existed on a very small scale and could be tremendously beneficial across West Virginia? That’s one small example of bills I’m working on that are things that we all say we want, and there’s an effective way to do it without having to get into this political food fight.”
Baldwin said an effective education reform initiative must take into account the challenges many students in West Virginia are forced to confront, as a result of factors outside of the control of teachers and school administrators.
“We heard (during the state’s education listening forums), over and over, that there’s so many problems that are coming, that are following students to school that inhibit them from being able to achieve at higher levels. This is home situations. This is substance abuse. There are ways that we can get to the root of that problem and, then, provide mental health professionals and wraparound services to deal with it now, so that students don’t move forward with it and can get back to life.”
A report resulting from the recent education forums across the state was released Tuesday by the West Virginia Department of Education. It includes recommendations in several areas, including funding, instructional quality, innovation, and emotional support for students impacted by dysfunctional homes and the ongoing drug crisis.