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Brian Dayton: How we accelerate economic growth (The State Journal)


West Virginia celebrates its 156th birthday next week, and there is much to celebrate.

Since April 2016, West Virginia has added more than 21,000 jobs, had the eighth highest GDP growth in 2017 and had the 19th highest in 2018.

Additionally, for the last three quarters of 2018, West Virginia saw faster job growth on a percentage basis than all of our surrounding states, and faster than over half of the country.

This happened because West Virginia is pursuing policies that foster job growth and economic development.

While we should celebrate these achievements, we must realize that today’s world and economy are rapidly evolving, and we must continue the drive to better ourselves. If we want to move our state into high gear, we must address West Virginia’s system of public education.

Every national statistic indicates that we are not adequately preparing our children for the workforce of the future. West Virginia students rank 49th on the SAT; 88 percent of our high schools do not meet the state’s own standards for math; and our eighth graders rank 45th in reading and 46th in math on the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP).

I will be the first to say that many West Virginia children are living in poverty, and these children are at a disadvantage compared with those who are not. We must be mindful of their needs and do more to provide necessary support for these students.

But we should also ask ourselves, “How do those students not living in poverty compare with their socioeconomic peers across the nation?”

According to the NAEP results, our students who are not in poverty rank 35th in reading and 39th in math at the fourth-grade level. By the time, they reach eighth grade, they drop to 48th in reading and 45th in math.

What’s more, due to how free school lunch is reported on NAEP, nearly three-quarters of the students in this group actually come from counties in West Virginia that have above-average household income compared to the rest of the state.

It is clear that West Virginia’s top-down, Charleston-centric approach to managing public education in West Virginia is not working. I read the report from the West Virginia Department of Education that was based on the responses of public educators across the state, and one central theme emerged — give more control to the local level and let our teachers do what they were trained to do — teach.

In response, the West Virginia Senate passed SB 1039, a comprehensive education reform bill that contains many changes to how we deliver public education to students across the state.

First, it provides another 5 percent pay raise to teachers in West Virginia. The bill provides additional pay to attract critically needed math and special education teachers, gives counties the flexibility to increase pay for certain subjects and increases state aid to West Virginia’s smallest counties. SB 1039 also removes restrictions and lets individual school districts decide how best to spend state aid funds.

To help our most vulnerable children, SB 1039 provides $24 million for additional student support personnel in our schools, requires professional development on the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students, and requires counselors to spend more time with students.

SB 1039 will make it easier to choose which school you want your child to attend, and will help give a reprieve to those students who have to ride a bus for hours a day by allowing them to attend a closer school, even if it’s in a different county.

SB 1039 gives county boards of education the option to authorize public charter schools in their county. These are public schools with public dollars that cannot pick and choose which students attend.

They are freed from state and county regulations in exchange for greater flexibility and accountability. This bill limits a charter contract to no longer than five years, and requires that the school be closed (the contract must contain a plan for the students in the event this happens) if it fails to meet its stated education goals.

Nothing in SB 1039 requires a county school board to authorize a public charter school, nor does it limit how many charter schools may be authorized.

Our county boards of education are elected and answerable to the citizens. This bill simply gives them another tool in the toolbox for improving student outcomes.

I applaud the leadership of the West Virginia Senate for their passion to ensure that every child receives a world-class education. When this bill is introduced in the House of Delegates, I hope that House members will give it the full consideration it deserves, and cast a “yes” vote for the children of West Virginia.

Brian Dayton is Director of Research and Member Communications for the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

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