Knives ready for education bill

Don’t be misled by how smoothly Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s education bill moved through the West Virginia State Senate. The knives will come out now that the bill has been sent over to the House of Delegates.

Some of the rough water the bill will now encounter will be political, with legislators worried about bucking the two teachers’ unions. Leaders of the West Virginia Education Association and the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers have been strident in their condemnations of the measure. The unions still have enormous clout.

About 18 specific complaints have been advanced by the unions. For a time, Tomblin believed the vast majority, 16 or so, had been dealt with to the union leaders’ satisfaction. Apparently that was too optimistic. By week’s end, the unions still were balking at many of the bill’s provisions.

One key objection to the governor’s bill involves what has become known as the Teach for America provision. Teach for America is a national organization – theoretically nonprofit but with a very healthy balance sheet – that works with college graduates who want to work in the classroom but do not possess teaching degrees. Teach for America gives them five weeks of pedagogical training.

In West Virginia, state law requires schools to hire certified teachers, for the most part. One of the certification requirements is a degree in education, so Teach for America people don’t qualify. Tomblin’s bill would change that.

As Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, noted, the bill doesn’t specifically mention Teach for America. It does allow more flexibility in current “alternative certification” rules. Several colleges and universities already offer alternative certification programs.

Here’s where concern about the bill goes beyond politics. About one-fifth of the 100 members of the House are active or retired public educators. Some of them have real concerns about certifying too many people without training in how to teach.

That isn’t just a turf protection reflex. Teaching is a demanding profession and it requires a certain skill set, some of which is developed by obtaining an education degree and some of which comes with experience. Both Ferro and Pethtel tell me they’re concerned that teachers without intensive professional training may shortchange students.

Of course, the problem is that in some fields – mathematics is one – West Virginia just doesn’t have enough certified teachers. So the question becomes whether it’s better to insist on fully trained educators and, in some cases, not have qualified ones at all, or to make use of alternative certification to obtain some who have at least a little exposure to pedagogical training.

Tomblin’s bill includes at least one safeguard against unqualified teachers. It gives principals and faculties more say in who is hired and retained at their schools. Rest assured that if a principal, who’s held responsible for results, doesn’t think an applicant can do a good job, that person won’t be viewed favorably.

In any event, the so-called Teach for America provision is just a tiny part of the bill. At some point, Tomblin and legislative leaders could amend or exclude it, should the issue become critical.

Let’s hope it doesn’t. The bill is chock-full of really good ideas, ranging from early childhood education to more emphasis on being certain children can read well at an early age. It’s far from perfect, but it’s one of the most significant attempts at education reform most of us have seen in our lifetimes.

The bill needs to be enacted.

It may well be that the unions have chosen the House as their battleground. Don’t be surprised if this one goes right down to the wire.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at myer@theintelligencer.net