Education officials, teachers unions prepare for session

Photo courtesy of the West Virginia Press Association Fred Albert President of the American Federation of Teachers, left, and Dale Lee of the West Virginia Education Association answer questions from the media during the WVPA’s Legislative LookAhead at the WV Cultural Center Friday.

CHARLESTON — Education is sure to be a topic of great interest for lawmakers during the 60-day legislative session starting Wednesday.

Members of the press heard from the Department of Education and the state’s two teachers unions during the West Virginia Press Association’s Legislative Lookahead at the Culture Center in Charleston Friday.

Steve Paine, the state superintendent of schools, told attendees that he is working with Gov. Jim Justice on education initiatives to present to the Legislature. Some of these include efforts to improve math scores among state students.

“The number one deficiency that showed up… under our accountability system is mathematics,” Paine said. “We have a serious mathematics student achievement issue in the State of West Virginia.”

Paine said the department has developed a comprehensive math student achievement plan, which will be rolled out in the governor’s State of the State address Wednesday night.

One of these issues being worked on is the number of uncertified teachers in classrooms teaching math. According to Paine, nearly 25 percent of classrooms in West Virginia have someone teaching math and geometry who is uncertified in that subject. The department is developing a strategy to give those teachers an opportunity to become certified math teachers, including providing differential pay stipends for obtaining certification.

“That’s been something that’s been a challenging issue in the past, but extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary actions and we’re willing to take them,” Paine said.

Other issues include curbing student absenteeism and restoring incentives for teachers to save the 15 personal days they receive annually and use toward their retirement. In looking at student absentee rates, the department found that teacher absenteeism was nearly as bad as the student rates. Paine said legislation will be introduced to restore the incentives for teachers to save those days instead of using them.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said a larger problem is the teachers who either quit the profession or leave for other states that offer better pay and benefits. He said last year’s 5 percent pay raise for teachers, school service personnel, and public employees was a good start and believes that Justice and the Legislature will keep their word to pass another 5 percent increase. Still, he said more needs to be done.

“This additional five percent will help, but if you make an investment in the future you don’t make the investment a one- or two-year investment,” Lee said. “An investment is a continued investment. We need to make a continued investment in education in West Virginia. I think the governor is moving in the right direction, but we have to address those problems.”

Fred Albert, president of the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said more needs to be done to recruit college students to pursue a teaching degree, as well as encouraging young people to consider a career in teaching.

“The easy fix is you have to make it attractive, but how do you make any profession attractive? You pay people a livable wage.”

Last year, teachers and school staff went on strike for nearly two weeks in February and March to demand better pay and affordable health care. An earlier bill raising pay by 1 percent was changed to 5 percent, and a task force was created to look at fixing the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

Besides teachers being promised an additional 5 percent raise in October, Justice and lawmakers also pledged to put $100 million in PEIA for long-term stabilization. The PEIA Task Force is still looking for ways to deal with the estimated $50 million yearly increase in medical inflation. In the meantime, union officials said they trust that the funding is there to raise pay again and put money into PEIA.

“Yes, we believe it’s there,” Albert said. “We believe if we’re really going to be committed to making this profession attractive, we’re going to find a way to fund it.”

“I believe that the governor is going to do what he said, and that money is going to be there,” Lee said. “I also believe that the Legislature may play some games…educators across this state have their eyes really awakened last year and they know the legislative process and follow it. They will follow it extremely close and hold people accountable.”

Lee, a member of the PEIA Task Force and chair of the Statutory Subcommittee, said he’d give the task force a grade of “incomplete.” He said he was disappointed that the Cost and Revenue Subcommittee didn’t meet to look at long-term funding options. However, he is optimistic that the task force will have ideas to present to the Legislature soon.

“The good thing is we’ll be making suggestions while the Legislature is in session, and they can then act on the recommendations we make,” Lee said.

The one thing all panelists agreed on was that West Virginia’s teachers need to be given the freedom to teach.

“The two ingredients that are not the silver bullet reform efforts that will really improve education is a great teacher in every classroom empowered to do the job,” Paine said. “If you give teachers the time and the resources and the trust…I’ve never been let down by a group of teachers when you provide that kind of support.”

The new chairs of the education committees in the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates — state Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, and Delegate Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison — were unable to attend.