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Education: Bullying report shows need for change

First, the good news, West Virginia is no longer dead last in one assessment of the quality of public schools across the country. The bad news? We are still much too close to the bottom for anyone to be pleased with the situation.

According to WalletHub’s “2021’s States with the Best and Worst School Systems,” the Mountain State ranks an overall 44th in the nation — ahead of Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Louisiana and New Mexico.

In the general assessments in the report, West Virginia ranked 45th in quality of public schools, but 17th in terms of safety.

Public school teachers and administrators are doing some things right, then, if our state ranks in the upper half when it comes to safety. And WalletHub’s survey placed West Virginia third in terms of the lowest dropout rate. Fantastic. Now that we’re doing a better job of keeping students in school, let’s work on the rest.

West Virginia is tied for 48th for lowest math test scores, 50th for lowest median SAT score and 44th for highest bullying-incidence rates. Those are some disappointing numbers, made all the worse knowing WalletHub found West Virginia is ranked 23rd in terms of total current expenditures for public elementary and secondary day schools per student. That gives the Mountain State the label “High spending and weak school system.” (For comparison, Utah is ranked 50th for spending, but 16th for the quality of their school system, giving it the label “Low spending and strong school system.”)

Lawmakers may be tempted to believe that means we should be giving public schools less money until the situation improves. But they should take a look at the message in that bullying statistic. Sure there are the occasional incidents of teachers, administrators, coaches and the like bullying students, but for the most part, student bullies are a product of the culture and priorities in their home.

In a state such as ours, where there is still a struggle to overcome the socio-cultural undervaluing of education (or outright resistance to it), in homes where generational economic struggles, addiction, poor health and other challenges mean it is simply harder for some students to come to school in the right frame of mind to learn, some students do, indeed take out their frustrations and insecurities on others.

Lawmakers can do more about that than spending money. They can stop feeding that mindset with intentionally backward fear-mongering and a refusal to grow and diversify our economy. They can work toward policies and development that lift those families, rather than pretending to do so while bending over backward to make sure they keep struggling. And they, too, can behave as though they value education.

Our students deserve the best education we can give them. But we all know that doesn’t begin and end in the classroom, with money being tossed in the general direction of the problem. It will take a concerted effort by people who understand it is a complex problem — and who genuinely want to do something about it.

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