Reporter’s Notebook: Back from Spring Break
I’m back from vacation just in time for the resumption of the special session today. Some Florida sun and surf did me some good.
I even encountered some charter school students at Disney World and didn’t yell at them for ruining education or for not being silver bullets or something. Of course, there will be no legislation for charter schools today or any other bill presented “under the guise of ‘education reform'” as one statehouse reporter tweeted, referring to Republican ideas to improve education. Today’s special session restart is for bills that Gov. Jim Justice vetoed in March.
But the special session for educational betterment is still on and likely to resume in June. I think lawmakers understand that even if they hold the next special session resumption during June interim meetings to save money, it’s likely such a special session will exceed that two-day window. Democrats will likely not agree to suspend rules to move bills through, especially if one of those bills includes a public charter pilot program.
People complain about the costs of special sessions a lot these days. For lawmakers and staff to work during a special session costs about $35,000 per day. Not cheap, but not something the legislature hasn’t budgeted for.
This is the first special session of 2019. So far, there have only been five special sessions under Justice since taking office in 2017 (the legislature can call itself into special session, but that takes three-fifths of members of both the House of Delegates and state Senate agreeing). During former governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s two terms there were 11 special sessions. During former governor (now U.S. senator) Joe Manchin’s first year in office in 2005 he called the legislature back in six times in one year.
Speaking of Manchin, the last special session he called before winning the special election at the end of that summer to serve the remaining term of the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd was a special session on education in 2010. It also started in May and included legislation for … wait for it … charter schools. That bill passed the senate but didn’t make it out of committee on the house side. Senators even suspended the rules to push it through quicker. I wish I could find the roll call vote for that.
I believe there is consensus on some amount of charter schools in the form of a pilot. Even if they agree with the three, I doubt in the short term there would ever be more than one and that’s likely on Charleston’s West Side, where Rev. Matthew Watts — a prominent black community leader — has wanted to set up a charter for the last decade. Elementary schools that serve the West Side all rank in the bottom for elementary schools in Kanawha County and the state according to the state Department of Education’s Balanced Scorecard. These schools rank in the red for not meeting academic performance standards in English/Language Arts and Mathematics, as well as attendance. Watts wants to try something new in a community he cares about. Who could blame him?
Whether we have charter schools or not is irrelevant to me. There is a far more pressing problem that I’ll get to in a second. But one of the lines constantly used by people who don’t want charter schools in this state is that charters are not a silver bullet. I agree, they’re not. But if one kid struggling to learn in the standard Bismarck/Dewey-style education system can be put in a different school doing education in a different way and become a better student, isn’t that a good thing?
It’s certainly better than pushing students through one meat grinder and telling yourself you’re making a sirloin steak, which is what State Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine does every time he brags about the state high school graduation rate — graduates who go straight into remedial classes if they even go to college at all.
One big takeaway from the state Department of Education’s efforts to compile data for lawmakers and the governor for the education special session was how many parents are fine with their schools. According to one survey, 76 percent of parents or caregivers of students in public schools said they agreed or strongly agreed with that statement that they were satisfied with their child’s school.
During a press conference before I left for vacation, Paine touted this figure as a reason to not do charters or education savings accounts. To me, that figure is disturbing on many levels.
I’d love to see a geographic breakdown of that survey number. I’m willing to bet you parents in these counties with these school think they are just fine. Even if you showed them the data, I think they would still insist their school is just fine.
At the end of the day, it’s not the teachers, the Hulk-like state education bureaucracy, evil Republicans, “union bosses,” or whatever else you can conjure up that’s holding us back. It’s ourselves. People should be seeing red when they see the red on the Balanced Scorecard.
It’s a cultural problem for our state, and I just don’t know how we fix that. Some blame the opioid epidemic, but our state education leaders admit we’ve had a math problem in our schools going back 40 years. What, pray tell, was the drug of choice for parents then that was causing home problems and keeping students distracted from learning at school?
Parents have to care more. The parents (or grandparents) who DO care more are looking for options. Those options might just take them out of the state.
Steven Allen Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.