CHARLESTON - State and local officials say a change in state law designed to ensure highly qualified teachers aides in pre-kindergarten classrooms may have the opposite effect.
Senate Bill 359, also know as the Education Reform Bill, was signed into law in 2013 by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. The bill was designed to improve student performance, give school systems more flexibility in designing their calendars and change some of the state's measurements of student success.
Joe White, executive director for the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, said included in the bill was a reclassification of pre-kindergarten teachers aides as early childhood classroom teachers assistants. The change, which went into effect this month, is causing serious concerns, he said.
Under the new classification, teachers aides are required to take nine hours of online training and apply for a state authorization to become early childhood classroom teachers assistants. Their seniority under the new classification depends on the order in which they complete the new state requirements.
White said this means a 20+ year veteran and paraprofessional with 48 or more hours of college training could potentially have less seniority than someone brand new to the program who completed the state training and authorization first. That new person could then "bump" the veteran and highly-qualified teachers aide out of their position through transfers or when applying for open positions, he said.
White said he knows of two school systems - Wood and Calhoun county school systems - which require pre-kindergarten teachers aides to be paraprofessionals, but he said the requirement could cause havoc with any school system that finds knowlegeable, highly trained and experienced educators suddenly knocked out of their jobs.
"If you've got a paraprofessional with 20 years in the classroom, they are very, very qualified for that position," he said. "Somebody that may have two years in the classroom, if they got in that first class and sent their papers in, they will have more seniority. Now how is that fair?"
"There really isn't a more-qualified or less-qualified," said Rhonda Crowley, early childhood coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Education. "Some do have paraproffesional certification, but they still have to have this authorization."
West Virginia Department of Education spokesperson Liza Cordeiro said there have been questions and complaints from school systems throughout the state, but she said that is not uncommon as districts adjust to new rules and regulations.
"Anytime you have change, you'll see bumps along the way," she said. "That's a natural progression."
Even so, Cordeiro said officials believe the change is both a positive and necessary one.
"It all goes back to the kids," she said. "There is a true belief that having this certification and having this career pathway, it will help the children."
Janet Bock-Hager, pre-kindergarten coordinator for the state Department of Education, said the online courses provide training in the areas of child development, special needs and inclusion, and language and literacy, all with a focus on early childhood.
"I think it's just a new process that each county is getting acclimated with," she said. "As people are going through the process, we're hearing very positive remarks on the courses. They are enjoying them and finding them completely applicable to their job."
White said he has recommended school systems, as a temporary workaround, post open positions as multi-classified, meaning they could use a person's seniority as either a teachers aide or as a early childhood classroom teachers assistant, depending on which was greater. White said a simliar suggestion was made last year due to classification changes for autism mentors.
"That is allowable," said Bock-Hager. "It is a county decision. If they do that, we have asked them to be consistent with whatever seniority data they use."
"It's a Band-Aid," White said.
White also said he believes the language of the certification requirement creates another problem.
"The new code state that in order to take those online classes, you have to have a position in kindergarten or pre-k," he said. "It also states that effective July 1, 2014, you have to have that classification to be in kindergarten or pre-k."
White said that sets up a chicken-or-the-egg situation where the only way to get a job is to have a classification that requires the person to already have the job.
"Within five years there are not going to be any early childhood classroom teachers assistants," he said. "That is a major problem."
White said while he has been talking with state Legislators and county school district administrators about the issue, it is something that will not be resolved before schools start up in August.
"It will require legislative action to fix," he said.
A delegation of teachers, service personnel and state representatives went before the Joint Committee on Education in June asking for Legislators to fix some of the perceived flaws in SB 359, including the reclassification.
Sen. Robert H. Plymale, D-Wayne, who heads the joint committee and the Senate Committee on Education, could not be reached for comment.
Hank Hager, legal counsel for the senate education committee, said while he couldn't comment on potential legislative action, the joint committee did devote its entire session in June to the issue.
"It is being looked into," he said.
However, Hager said there were no plans to take up the issue during the August interim committee meetings, and he did not know of any plans beyond August.