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Getting quite an education

Paul Hardesty, the new president of the West Virginia Board of Education, told me last Wednesday morning that he was complete blindsided by State Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch’s request to transfer to the open slot as superintendent of the Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.

“It’s like dealing a hand of cards. They dealt me five cards. They’re not good,” Hardesty said by phone just prior to his first state Board of Education meeting Wednesday.

There was speculation floating out there that Burch was pressured to step down as state superintendent, with the transfer to the Schools for the Deaf and the Blind being a way to save face.

While I’ve heard no one on the board or Gov. Jim Justice — a vocal supporter of Burch, who has also served Justice in two acting cabinet-level positions –speak badly of Burch himself, some were unhappy that Burch and former state board president Miller Hall filed court documents supporting the parents who filed suit against the Hope Scholarship.

Burch and Hall were co-defendants along with the Governor, legislative leadership, and State Treasurer Riley Moore (who is in charge of the Hope Scholarship program, an expansive education savings account program currently paused because of a preliminary and permanent injunction). I’m told the Governor received next to no heads up that Burch and Hall were going to, in essence, switch sides.

Keep in mind, the Legislature passed the Hope Scholarship, and it was signed into law by Justice. It’s up to the courts to determine whether the law violates the state Constitution. But until then, it’s up to the state board and the Department of Education to enforce the laws passed by the Legislature and signed by Justice.

But did this act of defiance result in Burch’s exile to Hampshire County? I’m doubtful, if only because I’m under the impression a majority of the board supports him, as does Justice even with the about face in the Hope Scholarship lawsuit. That doesn’t mean that Burch didn’t see some potential writing on the wall and made a proactive move.

I can tell you from listening in the state Board of Education meeting livestream that Hardesty is going to run a tight ship as state board president.

He grilled education leaders in Lincoln County over their state of emergency plans, telling them that they would answer to the taxpayers if their plans harm students.

He was also highly critical of the new state assessment results, which only showed slight improvements in Math, English Language Arts, and Science. Some of this can be blamed on loss of learning after more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic that saw part of one school year canceled and part of another school year spent half in-person and half in remote learning. But Math and ELA proficiency rates were not great before COVID either.

I got the impression from Hardy during the presentation of the assessment summary that he was not happy with the fairly rosy attitude of department officials who tried to spin the numbers as a positive.

In Math, only 33% of students either met or exceeded proficiency standards, up from 28% during the 2020-2021 school year. That’s still lower than the 39% in 2018-2019 (there was no testing for 2019-2020 due to the pandemic), and that is the best since 2014-2015 numbers of 30%. Reading proficiency has been decreasing since 2014-2015. And science proficiency, which was first tracked in 2017-2018, has been on the decline.

That’s the proficiency numbers for students meeting or exceeding standards. Students not meeting the Math standards at all was 36% during the last school year. That is the percent of total students from third grade up to 11th grade.

“Tell me that 30% to 35% proficiency is good. Well, where I live, that’s not good,” Hardesty told me. The man is a former Logan County Board of Education member and president.

As the state government reporter, I wear many hats. I wish I covered state education leaders more, but sometimes I have to make decisions on what I report on based on what looks important on an agenda. But I’ve covered enough state board members and at least two state superintendents of schools to constantly hear the sunny side about how well we’re doing in public education and how great our graduation rates are.

But our proficiency rates have been terrible for a while and our schools are pushing students out the door and into the hands of college remedial programs. We are sending students out into the world unprepared for entering the workforce. And the parents that care are seeking other options: private schools, homeschooling, and the new public charter schools.

Hardesty had a good line during Wednesday’s school board meeting: “Public education is under attack across the country right now and results like this, they give credence to that attack whether we want to accept it or not.”

Hardesty might just be the kick in the pants our public education system needs.

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