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Toril Lavender/For The Herald-Dispatch People gather at tables to discuss education topics during one of the The West Virginia Department of Education's seven regional forums to discuss statewide school improvement options at Cabell Midland High School, Monday, March 18, 2019.

By RYAN QUINN

HD Media

WINFIELD, W.Va. - State lawmakers had just listened Thursday to an hour-and-a-half of people telling them what's wrong with West Virginia's education system, or what isn't wrong despite perceptions, and what legislators should do about it.

Democratic senators had already hosted a series of town halls and had attended state Department of Education public forums in different parts of the state. Now, some Democrats were at Thursday's forum, hosted by Republicans who represent Putnam County.

Democratic Sen. Glenn Jeffries, sitting alongside Republicans and Democrats at the old courthouse in Winfield, said he'd now attended about eight forums. Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said he'd lost count - nine, he ventured - and Del. Jeff Campbell, D-Greenbrier, said he beat Baldwin by attending 14.

Campbell said he'd heard four common wishes: smaller class sizes; more help from counselors, nurses, psychologists, etc.; less testing; but also more student accountability for what the scores are.

Jeffries, D-Putnam, said he'd heard a pretty consistent message - teachers said they need help.

"They need counselors, they need mental health individuals to help them, they need social workers, and they need the freedom to teach," he said.

Baldwin said, "I've done listening sessions hosted by the (Department of Education), by Democrats, by Republicans, by home-school families, you name it. But at each and every one of those, I hear the exact same message about the same issues.

"I hear people who love their kids and who want to do right by their kids, but they feel like their hands are tied behind their backs," Baldwin said. "Whether they're home-school parents or public school teachers.

"The other thing that I hear, time and time again, is there are all sorts of social problems that are coming to school, and until we look at those, what we do at school in terms of policy is not going to make a long-term impact."

Right after the forum, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said that "there is very much a consistent theme."

"The wraparound services, the additional staff training and development, as well as compensation, which is all inherent and a component of the bill that we put forth," Carmichael said. "But there's still a lot of misinformation and concern about charter schools and education savings accounts."

Carmichael was referencing Senate Bill 451, also called the education omnibus bill. Senate Republicans tried to rush it through during the regular legislative session, but failed when the also Republican-controlled House of Delegates killed it on the first day of a statewide public school workers strike.

It would have provided tens of millions of dollars more for public education, including things like more school counselors and social workers and higher teacher pay. But it would have also created "school choice" programs that could've redirected public school dollars to privately run schools or home-schooling.

Carmichael said he plans to again push creating charter schools and ESAs in the special session ordered by Gov. Jim Justice. ESAs provide parents public money to send their kids to private and religious schools, home-school them or provide them other public education alternatives.

"We're going to be very firm on pursuing those options," Carmichael said, adding, "Obviously, we'll compromise as we do in any legislative environment."

Carmichael said he's aiming to start the session during the May interim legislative meetings.

Those are scheduled for May 20-21. That's shortly before the school year ends in most counties, an issue that could sap power from any new strike that might target charter schools, ESAs or other issues.

Of the timing of the upcoming session, Carmichael said, "We can't put the bill together before we receive the report from the state Board of Education and finish these forums. We're not expecting the report from the state school board until the first of May. We want to develop the bill and have the public be very cognizant and aware of what's in that bill, so that when we come to the special session we can quickly take care of business, develop a consensus and move forward."

House spokesman Jared Hunt wrote in an email that the plan has been to have the session during interims, "with the May interims being the earliest." He didn't specify when House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, had previously said May would be the earliest.

"The Speaker plans to meet with the Senate President at some point in the coming days to begin the discussion on special session planning and preparation," Hunt wrote.

Baldwin said he fears, despite the listening sessions, "that we're going to go back and we're going to have a rehash of what's happened over the past session and the past couple of years."

Baldwin, who is also a pastor, noted it was Holy Week in Christianity and said he's holding onto hope.

State Schools Superintendent Steve Paine said the education department is creating a report on what it heard through its forums and its various surveys.

But earlier this month, he provided some of his personal observations from the forums.

"Social, emotional, mental health needs, by far, No. 1, agreed upon by everybody," Paine said, a takeaway reminiscent of what the Democrats said Thursday.

He said he'd heard lots of discussion about over-regulation from policies of the state Board of Education, which oversees him and the department.

"Most of (the policies) come from legislation that says the state board shall promulgate a rule," he said.

And Paine said that "there was very, very, very little support offered for education savings accounts from across the board."

Speaking to the 10 lawmakers at Thursday's hearing, Cabell County teacher Teresa Jackson said, "I've seen several of you in your offices over the course of the session, for hours at a time."

She said it bothers her that when people talk about scores and assessments of schools, "we talk about them without talking about poverty levels or the opioid crisis or the struggles that our students have because parents are unemployed."

Researchers say higher poverty levels are closely associated with lower standardized test scores.

"There are kids who bring things to our schools that we are not equipped to fix, and a lot of that has to do with funding," Jackson said.

"When we talk about the charter school system, you guys talk about it as this brilliant option, that it would be this great thing that we would have as an alternative to a system you talk about as broken. That system was not built by you, but its rules and systems are maintained by you.

"You are in control of so much of our schools' environment. And to not take any responsibility for trying to fix that system, but to instead say, 'Well, we're going to give you an alternative,' is not helpful."

The state Legislature sets funding for education and passes education laws. The state school board passes many education rules, and discussion has rejuvenated recently over just how many, if not all, of the Legislature's education laws the board could change or ignore if it wanted to - considering the board's state constitutional education power.

Still, state lawmakers could put a proposed constitutional amendment before voters to take more or all of that rule-making power from the board and give it to the Legislature.

Amanda Pruett, a Putnam special education teacher, said some of her students have "wonderful families."

"But I then also have kids that come from nothing, and that is becoming the new norm," she said. "The kids that, you know, won't have the parents that will sign them up for those charter schools."

Amy Fairchild said she's both a public school teacher and a home-schooler.

"What about the parents who are working multiple jobs just to make ends meet?" Fairchild asked. "You know, just to make sure the kids are fed, they're clothed? How are they going to afford a private school if the public school is failing their child?"

She said she home-schools her youngest son because he's on the "Asperger's scale and he could not survive in the public school system the way it's run."

"Why can't we have ESAs for those parents who do care enough?" she asked. "If our public school is not working for that child, why can't those parents have that choice?"

There were about 50 attendees at the Winfield forum. A West Virginia Education Association union-sponsored forum Monday at Poca Middle, about 9 miles away, drew about 25.

The education department's eight forums, which ended April 3, had over 1,600 attendees overall, according to facilitator Stacie Smith.

The state's total population is about 1.8 million people.

The Winfield forum operated like a traditional town hall. Attendees were each given a few minutes to stand up and speak to the audience and lawmakers.

The Poca forum more resembled the department's forums, with people discussing educational needs and obstacles in small groups at separate tables and with table members changing over time.

At the outset at one table, Poca teachers began by saying students need more help dealing with issues that come from outside schools.

"We provide food and shelter and safety and academics and everything they need right here, but we can't help it if there's drugs at home, if there's hunger at home, if there's mental illness," Abby Broome said. "We're not trained in those issues, teachers are not trained in all of those things, and we don't have the money and the resources and the time to get our students the help they need, and they cannot learn if they're facing all of those other outside issues.

"Do we all agree with that?" Broome asked.

"My No. 1 choice is school choice," Kathie Hess Crouse then told the table.

Crouse, who runs the Unsocialized Homeschoolers of West Virginia Facebook group and is vice president of the West Virginia Home Educators Association, attended both Putnam forums.

Others at that table didn't join her in advocating for home-schooling, private schooling or charter schools, but she agreed with them in their disdain for standardized testing.

"Standardized testing should be done away with," Crouse said. "I feel it's abuse."

She said her son would be on an individualized education plan if he were in public school, and her daughter has dyslexia, and the testing would make them feel like "idiots."

"Both of my kids are excelling right now because they don't feel that way," she said.

Elyse Fernandez, a Poca Middle teacher, repeated her ire for the testing several times.

"Standardized testing sucks," Fernandez said.

While the state can alter standardized testing specifics, it's federal law that requires it in public schools.

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