Legislature can’t fix what ails our schools

March 15, 2019

Gov. Jim Justice has called a special legislative session this spring to deal with the promised teacher pay raises. But much more will be on the legislators’ “education betterment” agenda.

The legislature will surely attempt to add various plans to support private forms of education, thereby limiting public school support. Part of this is likely payback for the teachers’ strikes this year and in 2018. Yet, legislators seem to feel they can fix what ails West Virginia’s public schools. They can’t, largely because they don’t want to admit or recognize the basis for much of our state’s poor educational accomplishments.

To improve our state’s academic standing, we must convince West Virginians that their kids’ education is as, or even more, important than coal mining. Our legislators must understand that no matter how fantastic our public school teachers are, how modern our school buildings are or how updated the curriculum is, most kids won’t do well academically unless someone close to them, preferably a parent or grandparent, convinces them that their education is truly important.

Educational research shows that most students who are expected to succeed academically actually do. Traditionally, in West Virginia academics weren’t important for jobs or incomes; today they are vital.

There’s a world of difference between a New York City magnet public high school, such as Stuyvesant High School, and any school in this state. The only way to attend Stuyvesant is to pass a citywide test in 8th (sometimes 9th) grade. My husband graduated from that school generations ago and reports that the student body at that time was multi-ethnic.

Today, approximately 72 percent of Stuyvesant’s student body is Asian, while New York City’s population is about 14 percent Asian. The white poverty rate in NYC is almost 12 percent, but the Asian one is over 18 percent, so money isn’t the issue. The issue is that Asian parents recognize the importance of education for their children’s future and make sure their children are prepared to take the admission test.

Our legislators talk about how charter schools and special savings accounts to permit parents to pay for private, religious or home school options will magically improve West Virginia students’ poor academic achievement. These changes may be good for the already successful students, but not the rest.

Here is what will happen with the Legislature’s plan. Parents who are focused on specific values will haul them out of public schools because they will have the money for private forms of education. Many of the legislators who proposed this legislation send their kids to private or religious schools. Fewer parents who care about their children’s education will put them in public schools, leading the public schools to receive less funding, less able students and less involved parents.

As a retired school psychologist, I know that most students with special needs will end up in the public schools. Private, charter and parochial schools are not mandated or interested in providing such services. If the money pie is divided between the type of education the legislature wants and the public schools, the public schools will suffer.

The omnibus education bill that originally was rammed through the State Senate was a travesty on educational policy making. If our legislators really want to fix what ails public education in this state, they will not only consult parents, teachers and others involved in education but will also work to change the culture in this state to make more adults and children believe that without a solid education, poverty and unemployment will continue to be their future.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.