Education accountability shifting to local level

State school Superintendent James Phares is right about the major public education bill enacted this spring in West Virginia. As he remarked to a reporter last week, the law is “a huge undertaking.” It is, as he noted, “the most significant reform piece that we’ve had in 20 years.”

In some ways, however, the reform campaign’s very magnitude will make it an enormous challenge to implement. Phares and other education leaders may want to set priorities as they use the law as a blueprint for public school improvement in the Mountain State.

One change hailed by many certainly is important but may not be of foundational value in providing better schools. It is the increased flexibility given to county boards of education in deciding when they will hold school to ensure their counties provide the 180 days of instructional time each year required by state law.

Of course, that is important. But better quality instruction is more critical than providing more of what we offer now.

In that regard, several changes contained in the new law hold real promise for foundational change. Among them are a mandate that children be able to read by the third grade, restructuring of middle schools, and more attention to vocational/career training.

Also important is a new, more unified philosophy on handling truancy and school dropouts. For the past few years, educators have worked more closely than in the past with the courts to force parents to send their children to school. Coming soon, as Phares outlined in the interview, is more cooperation in that regard with the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

Initiatives listed above are just the tip of the iceberg in the education reform law. Clearly, state and local school officials need to identify the most important components of the new law and get them in place quickly.

Perhaps the most important change, as Phares is fully aware, is a shift in the basic philosophy of school governance in West Virginia. As he explained, in the past county board of education have been told they are responsible for good schools – then have been told in great detail how they will operate schools, with sometimes bothersome rather than helpful oversight from Charleston. The new approach is less rigidity at the state level, with even more accountability locally. That may be the most productive of the changes envisioned in the new law.