CHARLESTON - West Virginia counties will soon have more leeway when hiring educators and scheduling 180 days of student learning each year, after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Wednesday signed wide-ranging public schools legislation that topped his agenda this session.
The measure, which takes effect June 30, also offers loan forgiveness to teachers who commit to critical-need subject and geographic areas. It will repay nationally certified teachers when they renew that status. It also furthers Tomblin's goals of ensuring high school seniors are ready for college or career training, and that third-graders are reading at grade level by the end of that year.
"Its changes are real, and it will improve the lives of our kids," Tomblin, a Democrat, told the crowd in his Capitol reception room before the signing. "It focuses not only on quantity but the quality of time that our children spend in the classroom."
The bill followed an in-depth audit that questioned West Virginia's low-ranking student achievement scores, given the billions of dollars it devotes annually to public schools. Tomblin's response heeded its recommendation that factors besides seniority should help steer teacher hiring and transfers. The bill also limits non-instruction time while allowing counties to adjust for snow days to meet the state-required 180 days. The audit found that none of the 55 county's school districts met that mandate during the year it studied.
But groups representing teachers and school workers persuaded lawmakers to scale back those parts of the bill. They also had language removed that would have offered temporary licenses to participants in the national Teach for America program. The measure instead sets up a study of alternative ways to grant teaching certificates.
Leaders of these groups joined Tomblin and top legislators at the podium Wednesday. Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Glen Dale, singled the groups out for applause.
"No one got everything that they wanted, but everyone got something that they wanted," said Christine Campbell, incoming president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia.
Wednesday's ceremony also featured officials from business groups that rallied behind Tomblin's effort. Brenda Nichols Harper, a lawyer for the state Chamber of Commerce, praised the governor for making the issue this session's top priority.
"We will be at the table from here on out on education. We want a great workforce," said Janet Vineyard, chairwoman of the West Virginia Business and Industry Council.
The audit found the state education system rigid with a top-heavy bureaucracy and laws "detailed to the extreme." That prompted lawmakers to amend Tomblin's measure so that the Department of Education trims personnel spending by 5 percent in each of the next two years. The resulting cut for the proposed 2013-2014 budget is estimated at $850,000.
Promising to go further, Tomblin has enlisted the state Board of Education while issuing executive orders to pursue additional changes.
"This bill is a huge step in the right direction, but I want to emphasize that it's just the beginning," the governor said.
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, told the audience he hoped that meant teacher pay raises, tackling child poverty and giving educators more time to collaborate. Lawmakers are, meanwhile, pursuing additional measures before their session ends Saturday.
The Senate Education Committee, for instance, advanced a House-passed bill Tuesday that repeals 26 sections of state law targeted by the audit. That measure also devotes funding to local-level educator training - teachers now routinely travel to Charleston for that - and for digital-age learning tools.
And the state board has budgeted $1.6 million to hire 16 staffers to provide county-based professional development through the Regional Education Resource Agencies, President Wade Linger announced at the signing.
The bill targets third-grade reading partly by requiring all 55 counties to offer full-day education to 4-year-olds five days a week, while providing for the necessary staff. The readiness provisions require schools to test high school juniors and then offer remedial classes to those who need it when they're seniors.
The classroom hiring changes put seniority alongside 10 other criteria including relevant specialized training and past evaluations. County school boards can weigh each factor as they choose, unless an already-employed teacher is among the applicants. All criteria are then given equal weight except faculty senate and principal recommendations, which count double. An applicant who wins both recommendations as well as the county superintendent's is guaranteed the job.
"This bill is an example of what government can do when everybody sits down and works together on one common goal: what's best for our children. We did that," said House Speaker Rick Thompson, a Wayne County Democrat.