Op-ed: Education bill will strengthen schools

As students go back to their classrooms in the coming weeks, they are going to be walking into school systems that have been significantly strengthened thanks to recent actions by the state Legislature.

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed House Bill 206, a comprehensive education reform package that represents the most significant investment in public education in modern West Virginia history.

Unfortunately, much of the coverage of this bill focused on a few aspects that some organizations strongly opposed – specifically the option for county school boards to allow charter schools in their districts – drowning out much of the discussion about the many of the other positive aspects of the bill. This bill triggered an immediate infusion of more than $130 million into our state’s education system, with tens of millions of additional dollars to be invested in the coming years.

It continued the Legislature’s efforts to make education employee pay more competitive, with an additional average 5-percent across the board salary increase – $2,120 for teachers and $1,150 for service workers.

There are also additional bonuses and salary incentives for math and special education teachers, as well as employees who use less than four days of leave per year. Teachers and support personnel are also given an additional $200 to purchase school supplies under the bill.

Counties will also be allowed to provide additional compensation for teachers fully certified and assigned in critical need and shortage areas, as well as remote geographical areas or with areas with high turnover rates. Also, teachers who decide to also serve as master teachers, mentors or academic coaches can receive additional compensation to help assist others in improving their professional practice.

Our bill expands the Underwood-Smith Teaching Scholars Program for the purpose of giving scholarships to individuals who agree to teach in a critical teacher shortage field for at least five consecutive years. It increases the amount of the award from up to $5,000 per year to $10,000.

It changes the name of the existing Underwood-Smith Teacher Assistance Loan Program to the Teacher Education Loan Repayment Program. This program will repay the student loans for those who agree to teach for two years in an area of critical shortage or work as a school counselor in areas of critical need.

This bill will also increase funding for county school systems by changing the state funding formula to allow counties to keep more of their local share of funds. Additionally, smaller counties like Wirt that have less than 1,400 students will see increased funding to help them cover the fixed costs of operations, like maintaining schools and continuing local bus routes.

Our education bill also provides an additional $30.5 million in funding for additional student support services. This will mean more social workers, psychologists and counselors working in schools to help students who have broken homes and need additional support. The bill also requires that support personnel spend more direct time with these children to support their needs.

The bill establishes that it will be the teacher’s recommendation that is the primary consideration when determining whether or not a student should be promoted to the next grade level.

It strengthens and expands Local School Improvement Councils, requiring them to conduct at least one meeting annually to engage parents, students, school employees, business partners and other interested parties in a dialogue regard the school’s academic performance and standing and issues that affect it.

This bill also creates an open enrollment policy, removing existing provisions in state code relating to transfers between counties and transfers between high schools. It requires a county board to establish and implement these transfer policies that would allow students to transfer between schools without charging tuition and without obtaining approval from the board of the county in which a student resides.

Our bill also addresses truancy by requiring that after both three and five unexcused absences the attendance director, assistant, or principal make meaningful contact with the parent or guardian of the student to ascertain the reasons for the unexcused absences. They must then determine what measures the school may employ to assist the student in attending and not incurring any additional unexcused absences.

These are just a few of the major changes contained in this bill that you may not have heard about.

It is my firm belief that as our students head back to school this year, they are going to be better served, better prepared and better educated thanks to the many positive aspects of this legislation.

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Del. Chuck Little is a Republican member of the House of Delegates from Wirt County representing the 9th District, which covers Wirt and portions of Wood counties.

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