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West Virginia bucking the education establishment

In both our states, something interesting has occurred regarding public schools during the past year or so. Whether it is good or bad is a matter many may dispute, but it marks a sea change in attitudes among policymakers.

Ohio legislators are considering a change in the requirements to graduate from high school. If approved, the new criteria will go into effect for the class of 2023. That means this year’s high school freshman class would be affected.

Among other things, the proposed rules would mean that to receive a diploma, high school seniors must have completed a set of minimum course credits set by their local school districts and the state. Exactly what those might be has not been revealed, and that is a key consideration, of course.

Also, graduates would have to pass algebra and English tests or achieve some equivalent, possibly by passing college-level math and English courses. Alternatives could include demonstration of technical skills or plans to enlist in the armed forces.

Finally, diploma recipients will have to have earned two “diploma seals” in effect certifying they have fulfilled two of a list of accomplishments including community service, college readiness and citizenship knowledge.

Some of the requirements may need to be refined, of course. The “diploma seal” plan in particular sounds a bit fuzzy.

But here is the interesting aspect of what lawmakers are considering:

Their plan was recommended by several organizations including a business coalition, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute think tank and the Alliance for High Quality Education. “The plan was chosen over one developed by the state Board of Education,” The Columbus Dispatch reports.

In other words, the education establishment, which for decades has controlled public school policy, was given the cold shoulder by legislators.

Something very similar happened in West Virginia this year, as Republicans in the Legislature crafted a major school improvement bill. Some of its key provisions, including those for charter schools, were rejected by many in the establishment. At one point, state Board of Education members expressed concern over lawmakers’ plan.

Yet it was enacted.

Now, that didn’t happen without a lot of give-and-take, particularly in the form of a two-day strike by members of the three unions representing many public school employees. Though provisions for charter schools stayed in the bill, they were watered down considerably from the initial proposal. It will be difficult for anyone desiring to open a charter to do so without the consent of county board of education members.

So the education establishment still has some muscle. Considering that local boards still run schools under rules adopted by the state board, the establishment remains in the driver’s seat.

In West Virginia, by the way, the establishment has another advantage: Believe it or not, the state constitution has been interpreted in the past by the West Virginia Supreme Court as having control over public schools — with supremacy over the Legislature.

No one seems eager to put that to a test — and three of the five high court justices to whom I talked about the matter refused to discuss how they might rule. Still, it’s something of a sword over lawmakers’ heads.

But — and this is a big “but” — what’s happened in both West Virginia and Ohio is fascinating. My opinion is that it has something in common with the revolution in political thinking that put Donald Trump in the White House. He was elected because he painted himself as an outcast, not really a loyalist to either major party.

Enough voters were frustrated with the political establishment’s failure to get certain things done that they voted for the maverick.

Is that what’s happening to the education establishments in our states? Frustration with lack of progress being demonstrated by refusal to do what the professionals advocate?

I guarantee you that to some extent, that is precisely what is happening.

Mike Myer can be reached at mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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