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Opinion: Back to school means even more this year as real education reform brings much-needed changes to W.Va.

By Senator Mitch Carmichael

President of the West Virginia Senate

When I became Senate President three years ago, one of my highest priorities was changing the trajectory of our state’s K-12 education system.

W.Va. Senate President Mitch Carmichael

My colleagues and I have big dreams for West Virginia: a stronger economy, more and better jobs, healthier citizens and communities.

But if we can’t give our students a solid education, all the other things we’re doing as legislators to make the mountain state a better place to live and work will be in vain.

Education is our state government’s biggest financial commitment and its greatest moral responsibility. For too long, we haven’t been living up to that responsibility.

Despite per-pupil spending that ranks in the top half of U.S. states, our student performance has lagged near the very bottom. Even accounting for West Virginia’s unique demographic challenges, we simply haven’t been doing a good enough job.

If our students have been failing, it’s because we’ve been failing them.

Too much money spent on bureaucracy and not enough on teacher pay. A one-size-fits-all approach to school staffing and instruction. Lack of transparency. Decision-making authority concentrated in Charleston, leaving local school boards with their hands tied.

Those were just some of the problems my Senate colleagues and I have been determined to tackle.

Students across the state begin returning to classrooms this month, and that back-to-school excitement is in the air. I’m feeling some of it myself, because I’m proud to say that we’ve begun the process of improving education in our state.

Two years of hard work and debate culminated earlier this summer in the passage of a new education bill that we believe will bring positive changes for teachers, parents, and kids.

There’s a long way to go, but we’ve made some tremendous strides.

First and foremost, we’ve enacted the largest teacher pay raise in state history: two consecutive five percent increases. Finally, the respect we have for our teachers is being reflected in their paychecks.

And by making a historic investment in public employees’ health insurance, we’ve made sure that these pay raises won’t be gobbled up by higher health-care premiums.

For an unprecedented third consecutive year, health-care costs for state employees are holding steady. If you or someone in your household has worked in the private sector recently, you probably understand how unusual that is.

The omnibus education bill also dramatically expands funds for school support services: nurses, counselors, and mental health professionals. We want our schools to be places not only of learning, but of safety and support.

For students facing challenges at home or tough transitions outside of school, this new funding will help them manage those obstacles so they can focus on learning. Teachers and administrators will be able to work closely with these professionals to get kids the support they need.

Different parts of our state have different needs when it comes to K-12 education, and that’s why the bill we passed emphasizes flexibility. We’ve included block grants that will allow local school boards to determine best use of funds for their communities.

One community might use its grant for new buses. Another might want to provide more technology for classrooms. Another might need a new gymnasium. Local elected boards understand their own needs better than administrators in Charleston, and our bill lets them choose where to put their money.

And with our state auditor’s new initiative to provide complete transparency in how education funds are spent, the public will be able to see where its dollars are going.

Flexibility is important for families too. That’s why my colleagues and I worked hard to begin providing choice for parents who may want an alternative learning environment for their children.

Kids’ learning styles aren’t one-size-fits-all, and our schools shouldn’t be either. I’m thrilled that for the first time, some of our communities will have the chance to open public charter schools tailored to their specific needs.

Most of our sister states have had these innovative schools for years, so we have a lot of studying and learning to do about how best to make them work here in West Virginia.

Working over the past two years to improve our schools has taught me a lot. Just like lifelong learning, education reform is a continuing process – and it is my goal for the Legislature to keep listening, studying and evaluating how we’re doing.

Like our students returning to school this month, I believe we’re at the start of something good.

— Senator Carmichael, R-Jackson, is President of the West Virginia Senate and Lieutenant Governor of West Virginia.

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