By RYAN QUINN
The West Virginia Department of Education released Tuesday its report on the eight forums it held across the state and the surveys it collected regarding the upcoming special legislative session on education.
The report, which strongly recommends not creating non-public school vouchers, can be found at wvde.us/edvoices.
"It captures public input of more than 20,000 West Virginians to help inform the special legislative session," the report says.
The report's executive summary key findings begin with: "It is apparent more needs to be done to address the consequences of poverty and the opioid crisis on West Virginia's children. Public schools carry much of the burden created by abuse, neglect and household dysfunction."
"As a result, school staffs need additional resources ranging from increased personnel and mental health services, to support for students and faculty impacted by the toxic stress they encounter daily," the report says. "Progress moving forward will be significantly impeded if this crisis is not aggressively addressed."
The report lists four top priorities: "provide a pay raise to all school employees," "increase funding for social emotional supports with local flexibility," "incentivize high-performing schools by providing additional flexibility," and "fund a supplement to strengthen teachers' skills in shortage areas with an initial focus on math."
One of the biggest focuses of discussion has been charter schools and education savings accounts (ESAs).
"Many participants, including teachers, principals and parents, were concerned about the negative effect of school choice initiatives like charter schools, open enrollment and education savings accounts [ESAs] on funding for traditional public schools," the report said.
"Misconceptions, from participants internal and external to the public school system, on some of the proposals created a sense of confusion. Participants generally supported efforts to enroll students in existing public schools with fewer restrictions."
"If a limited number of charter schools are authorized," the report says, it recommends, among other things, that lawmakers:
n "Place oversight/authorization responsibility with the West Virginia Board of Education and local boards of education"
n "Prohibit for-profit schools and management companies, and virtual charter schools"
Regarding ESAs, it recommends "do not implement ESAs due to public concerns over fraud, lack of accountability and concentration of benefits to higher-income families."
During the regular legislative session that ended in March, Republican leaders put charter schools and education savings accounts into a single bill (Senate Bill 451) that also included pay raises for public school workers and other public school funding increases, such as for more social workers and counselors.
ESAs are vouchers, but instead of just providing parents public money to send their children to religious and other private schools, parents can use the money to provide tutoring, homeschooling and online schooling. They could, for example, use the money to purchase textbooks and computers.
The Republican-controlled House amended the Republican-controlled Senate's version of that bill, which was dubbed the "omnibus education bill," to completely remove vouchers and cap the allowed number of charter schools statewide at two.
The bill headed back to the Senate, where senators then put vouchers back in, raised the number of allowed charter schools to seven and removed other House-imposed restrictions on their creation. The Senate then sent the bill back to the House.
That triggered West Virginia's second statewide public school workers strike in as many years. The House killed the Senate's newly amended version of the omnibus bill on the first day of that two-day strike.
Justice later called the special session on education, which could begin later this month.