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Opinion: A new era for West Virginia education; Courage and persistence triumphed over the status quo

By W.VA. Senate President Mitch Carmichael

Last week, something happened in your state Capitol that many people predicted never would: Our Legislature passed a comprehensive education reform bill, including measures that provide educational choice in our state.

W.Va. Senate President Mitch Carmichael

Governor Jim Justice signed the bill on Friday.

For decades, many have proposed and tried to pass legislation enabling public charter schools in West Virginia. Thanks to the leadership and perseverance of our Senate Republican caucus, we’ve finally joined the vast majority of our fellow states in reaching that goal.

Those invested in the status quo have finally been defeated by those insisting on progress and opportunity for our students.

We heard throughout this debate that West Virginia’s abysmal education statistics are the fault of things our schools can’t control: poverty, opioid abuse, families in crisis. 

But the hard truth is that we can’t put all the blame on outside factors. The liberal Urban Institute released a report in 2015 that compared each state’s students to similar students across state lines, taking into account a whole range of demographic variables including race, income, English proficiency, and family structure. 

[Urban Institute study: https://www.urban.org/research/publication/breaking-curve-promises-and-pitfalls-using-naep-data-assess-state-role-student-achievement/view/full_report]

The study was designed to identify the states that are doing the best job at educating the most disadvantaged students. If poverty and family breakdown were really to blame for our poor performance, this report would have shown it. But once again, West Virginia was at the bottom. 

According to left-leaning website Vox, the report represented “very bad news for West Virginia, whose poor scores can’t be explained by student demographics alone, and which aren’t rising.” 

[Vox: https://www.vox.com/2015/10/26/9617514/test-scores-naep-2013]

By virtually every measure of student success, West Virginia ranks at or near the bottom. Maybe that’s acceptable to the people running our education bureaucracy. It’s not acceptable to me.

Yes, many of our students come from difficult circumstances. And our bill provides millions of new dollars for counselors, nurses, and other support personnel to help students deal with the challenges they face at home. We’ve also changed our school funding formula to help our rural counties that have been hard-hit by economic changes and population loss.

But our kids are also being failed by the system – and it’s the system that needs to change.

Thousands of teachers across our state pour their time and energy into their jobs, but they’ve been restricted by a bureaucracy that centralizes money and decision-making authority in Charleston and views innovation as a threat.

Our teachers have been underpaid, and that’s why the core of this legislation is a 5 percent pay raise for teachers and support personnel – the second 5 percent pay raise in two years.

We’ve also given local school boards more flexibility in how they hire and compensate staff, particularly in hard-to-fill positions like science and math. And we’ve updated scholarship and loan-repayment programs for teachers in high-demand fields.

We didn’t stop there. Our bill also provides a sales-tax holiday to help parents buy school supplies, open enrollment across counties, and a $500 bonus for teachers who take fewer than four days of leave.

It is astonishing to me that Democrats would vote against all these things simply because their union allies feel threatened by a tiny number of (potential) charter schools.

Throughout this debate I have been amazed by the amount of hyperbole, obfuscation, and outright dishonesty about what public charters are and who they benefit. 

Forty-four states and the District of Columbia already have charter school legislation. Tens of thousands of families across the country love their charter schools because they’ve seen first-hand how innovation and new ideas have helped students – all kinds of students – flourish.

The bill we’ve passed allows for three charter schools by 2023, with up to three additional schools per three years after that. I hope and believe that a decade from now, even the naysayers will acknowledge that these new options have improved our educational system.

Today, I could not be prouder of the seventeen other Republican members of the Senate who joined me to take this historic step for our students, parents, and teachers.

I wish the road that led to this bill had been smoother and less littered with vitriol and ad-hominem attacks. But in the end, I’m proud of what our democratic process produced. I will happily weather any amount of name-calling from union bosses if it means better educational options for West Virginia kids.

This isn’t the end of our hard work in improving education in our state. There’s more to do. But it’s the end of the era of burying our heads in the sand and pretending nothing needs to change. 

I am firmly convinced that West Virginia students, teachers, and parents are as gifted as any in America. With these long-awaited reforms, we’ve put power in the hands of our local communities, schools, parents, and teachers. I’m excited to watch what they do with it. 

— Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, represents the Fourth Senatorial District, which includes Jackson and Mason counties, and parts of Putnam and Roane counties.

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