An audit of West Virginia K-12 schools revealed lagging student performance despite high spending and an overregulated, bureaucratic system with limited voter accountability, prompting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) to call for change in his State of the State address.
The five-part, $750,000 audit offered more than 50 findings and recommendations for improving the state’s education system.
Small Items Add Up
Auditors were charged with finding out how the state could save money while improving education quality. West Virginia spent $3.5 billion on education during the 2010 budget year. The auditors offered several measures to reorganize the system and stated these could save the state $90 million annually.
“Most of the efficiencies we recommended are relatively small items, but together add up to a significant amount of money,” said Eric Schnurer, president of Public Works LLC, the Pennsylvania-based group that conducted the audit.
Money-saving recommendations include slimming the state’s Department of Education and bringing pay more in line with the private sector, reducing the number of school cooks and their contract length to school days only, stopping double-paying bus drivers for extra routes during work hours, tying teacher evaluations in part to student test scores, and expanding online classes and technology.
Teachers Unions Praise, Question
Teachers union representatives praised the report for bringing attention to teacher pay. The audit says West Virginia’s low teacher pay hinders the state’s ability to compete regionally and nationally, though the state has twice raised salaries since 2008.
The report references teacher pay primarily by recommending cost-saving practices successful elsewhere.
For example, it points to a pilot program in Boston involving 23 schools given “greater control over their budgets, schedules, hiring and curriculum.” The schools graduated students that “perform better on standardized tests, have fewer discipline events, attend class more often, and graduate at higher rates than those enrolled in the city’s regular public high schools,” the report observed.
It also noted New York City schools had increased efficiency by cutting more than $230 million from their central office since 2006 and attracting math and science teachers by offering them a housing subsidy.
Embracing Online Education
The report—and its critics—noted West Virginia’s great divide between rural and urban areas.
That divide is “not really an excuse anymore now that we have more areas being connected,” said Steve Allen Adams, who covers state legislative activity for West Virginia Watchdog.
The report’s largest section focused on making West Virginia “a leader” in online education and education technology. It suggested, among other things:
- replacing textbooks with digital content and requiring districts to “spend 50 percent of their textbook budget on on-line content within two years—and 100 percent within a decade,”
- letting students “take as many on-line courses as they want,” and
- increasing teacher technology training and support staff.
Schnurer pointed to research showing digital learning causes students overall to learn more and increases their economic opportunities.
“It’s not a substitute for educating students as we have known, but it’s a way to dramatically improve it,” he said.
Schnurer said he hopes the audit will also lead to improvements in moving graduates seamlessly into the workforce—a theme the governor seized upon during his recent State of the State speech.
Governor: Let’s Move Ahead
Tomblin made the audit results a centerpiece of his speech, saying although goals the audit set forth cannot be achieved “overnight,” he would move toward them with legislation to expand a pilot teacher-performance program.
“I believe it can help make our good teachers great and identify a teacher who needs our help to be better,” Tomblin said.
Adams called the proposal “a pretty bold thing, considering the environment,” but he indicated the legislation is “not quite as stringent as what some would like.” Still, he said, it’s “a good first step.”
The governor also suggested legislation to establish a pilot program giving local administrators greater flexibility in attracting and hiring good teachers in struggling schools.
“Education Efficiency Audit of West Virginia’s Primary and Secondary Education System,” Public Works LLC, January 2012: http://www.governor.wv.gov/initiatives/satf/Documents/WVDE%20Report%20Final.pdf
Image by Foo Conner.