House Speaker Rick Thompson was rolling along in his traditional opening day speech of the 2013 legislative session with the usual boilerplate material: work together, a better future, look what we have accomplished together, etc.
But then this line: “The education system in West Virginia is on the brink of an overhaul.”
In the media we don’t actually “stop the presses” anymore, we tweet breaking news, and several State Capitol reporters latched on to the Speaker’s line, rushing it out to their followers.
Thompson continued to his fellow House members: “It is important that all members of the House of Delegates are up to date and knowledgeable of what the audit recommends and what is needed to improve upon our education environment.”
The language is significant.
Thompson could have ignored the controversial audit, or thrown out some banality about “improving our schools.” No one would have taken much notice.
But instead he used the word “overhaul.”
The audit found, and the reform-minded state Board of Education agreed, that our public school system is bureaucratically top heavy, badly in need of innovative ways to develop, reward and retain great educators and inadequate in preparing all students for workforce needs and careers.
The status quo isn’t working.
Our students are below the national average in 21 of 24 categories measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress. One in four high schools students doesn’t graduate on time.
Teachers are hemmed in by an across-the-board pay and benefit schedule that fails to reward excellence. Local school boards are hamstrung by a litany of rules and regulations that come out of Charleston and Washington.
Local boards are desperate for more control, according to Mercer County School Board President Greg Prudich.
Speaking to lawmakers this week on behalf of the West Virginia School Board Association, Prudich said, “Our association contends the ultimate goal is to vest more power and authority for education decision making at the county level over the next five years, creating precisely the environment called for in the audit.”
Governor Tomblin is expected to propose substantial education reform this legislative session, shifting more control to county school systems and breaking up the antiquated and absurdly restrictive hiring and firing rules.
But the success or failure of any reforms will depend largely on whether legislative leaders are on board.
Senate President Jeff Kessler indicated to me this week on Metronews Talkline that he is. “You’re going to see some real efforts (to pass legislation) that do make some positive changes,” Kessler said.
And now we see a green light from Thompson, leader of the House, where the stiffest opposition to tangible education reform is likely to appear.
A meaningful overhaul will be difficult, but it’s encouraging that Thompson has his members on the brink.