CHARLESTON — The Republican-led West Virginia Legislature and the West Virginia Board of Education and Department of Education profess the same goals of improving educational attainment for all students, though recent years have seen these two sides often butting heads.
Paul Hardesty, the new president of the state Board of Education, has seen both sides of this divide. As a former member of the Democratic minority in the Senate representing Logan County, Hardesty was often an eloquent and vocal critic of some of the education bills passed by the Republican minority. And as a relatively new member of the state board, he has seen his fellow board members take actions he doesn’t agree with.
A former member and past president of the Logan County Board of Education, Hardesty was chosen by his fellow board members as their new president, succeeding board member Miller Hall.
“It’s humbling. I had never envisioned in a million years that I would be on the state Board of Education. I sure didn’t envision being its president,” Hardesty said by phone earlier this week.
Now as the leader of the nine-member board charged by the state Constitution with the “general supervision of the free schools” in West Virginia, Hardesty believes it is time for lawmakers and state education officials to stop digging foxholes and come back together for the goals they both support.
“I care about children deeply. I care about their future,” Hardesty said. “I just want to try to make a difference, and that’s why I’m there. I think we’re put in certain places for a reason, and I hope that I can do what’s best for the children in West Virginia.”
Some of the acrimony can be traced back four years ago to the first teachers strike in 2018. That year, lawmakers attempted a small pay raise for teachers and school service personnel, but that raise didn’t go far enough. Teachers and staff went on a nine-day strike that ended with lawmakers approving a 5% pay raise.
Gov. Jim Justice proposed an additional 5% raise for state employees and teachers and staff in 2019, but lawmakers tried to tie that raise to a massive education omnibus bill. Another strike occurred over two days. Justice called a special session immediately after the end of the 2019 regular session for lawmakers to work on a new omnibus bill, passing it later that summer.
The bill that passed, House Bill 206, included the teacher and staff raises, incentives for recruiting new teachers, increases in the school aid formula for county school systems, funding for wrap-around services and more. But it also included the foundation for the state’s first public charter school pilot program. After one school was unable to receive approval from two counties, lawmakers amended the law and created the Professional Charter School Board as a charter school authorizer.
“The primary objective of this special session was to pass education reform,” said former Senate President Mitch Carmichael after the passage of HB 206 in 2019. “We just achieved that tonight. We’re thrilled about it. It’s been in the works in this state for more than 30 years. People have talked about doing it, and you just witnessed this Legislature deliver that monumental achievement.”
The Board of Education was not happy with the creation of public charter schools, but the board was responsible for approving rules for the charter school pilot project.
“Am I pleased about this? No. Am I 100% for charter schools? No,” said former board president Hall during a board meeting in 2021. “Is it what is best for kids? I don’t know.”
“The Legislature did this without our involvement. We did not ask them to do a charter school policy or code,” said board member Debra Sullivan. “Do we really want to commercialize our public education and outsource our children?”
Then during the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers also passed a bill creating the Hope Scholarship educational savings account program. The Hope Scholarship allows parents to use $4,600 of the state school aid formula funding set aside for each student to pay for education programs outside of public schools, such as private school tuition, home schooling and tutoring.
The Hope Scholarship was supposed to start this coming school year. By the end of May, more than 3,146 Hope Scholarship applications had been awarded at a cost of about $14.5 million. The program was only available for public school students, but the program opens up to all eligible public, private and homeschool students by 2026 and could cost as much as $102.9 million.
The program is under a preliminary and permanent injunction pending an appeal to the new Intermediate Court of Appeals. Three parents filed suit in January to block the program, suing state elected officials, legislative leaders and state education officials. But despite being defendants in the lawsuit, former board president Hall and State Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch filed court documents supporting the parents’ argument that the Hope Scholarship violated the state Constitution.
“The Hope Scholarship Program incentivizes students to exit the public school system and drains needed public funds from the state’s public schools,” Burch and Miller said in a statement last month. “As a result, it violates the West Virginia Constitution as it prevents the West Virginia Board of Education from providing a thorough and efficient education for all children.”
During the most recent legislative session that ended in March, lawmakers approved two constitutional amendments for the November ballot that could have implications for education. Amendment 2 would change language in the state Constitution to give lawmakers the authority to reduce or eliminate tangible machinery and equipment, inventory and vehicle personal property taxes in the future.
The amendment won’t itself reduce or eliminate any rates, but county schools are concerned about how the Legislature will replace the revenue lost from eliminating those taxes. County governments and county school systems rely on revenue from property taxes, though lawmakers are developing a plan to directly fund counties from the general revenue budget.
Amendment 4 would give the Legislature authority to approve or reject rules and policies developed by the Department of Education and state Board of Education. Every other state department and agency must submit their proposed rules to the Legislature’s Rule-Making Review Committee, but education rules are not approved by lawmakers.
“We are seeing decision-making and power move from the local level to the government in Charleston,” said Adam Cheeseman, superintendent of Doddridge County Schools and president of the West Virginia Association of School Administrators, speaking at a state board meeting last week. “If we wish to defend our Constitution, then we need to stand up and be on record supporting the principles that provide for all citizens of West Virginia.”
After serving in the Senate for a term and now serving on the state board since Justice appointed him in December, Hardesty has witnessed the divide between state education officials and lawmakers.
“There’s a disconnect right now between the Legislature and the department. I don’t think I’m out of line to say that,” Hardesty said. “I think at the end of the day, both arenas want the same thing, but they just seem to have a different idea of how we get there.”
Hardesty said he wants to use his time as state board president to get education officials and lawmakers out of their respective foxholes and talk to each other in a collaborative way. While the state Constitution grants the board supervisory powers over public education, the Constitution also says the Legislature shall provide “…by general law, for a thorough and efficient system of free schools,” and that the board “…shall perform such duties as may be prescribed by law.”
“What I want to try to do is be the conduit. I want to build consensus,” Hardesty said. “I want to focus on three things during my term as president of this board: consensus, communication and collaboration. “I don’t think for a long time those have happened between the state department and the Legislature.”
For starters, Hardesty wants to do more face-to-face interactions between board members and lawmakers. Sometimes board members are insulated from the Legislature, with the department doing more of the direct interaction with lawmakers.
“Legislation is all about compromise,” Hardesty said. “Everyone’s not going to agree on every issue, but if you get people on both sides of an issue that work on it together and compromise and try to perfect something and make it as good as it can be, that’s what we need to get back to doing.”
Hardesty would also like to see the board stay away from taking political stands, especially when it comes to Amendments 2 and 4. Hardesty said he voted against putting out the board’s and department’s statement against Amendment 4. While Hardesty has personal opinions about both, he believes that now that the amendments will be on the November ballot, it’s not the board or department’s place to sway voters one way or another.
“The legislative branch has the prerogative to put ballot initiatives on the ballot, such as these constitutional amendments. It’s been done throughout history,” Hardesty said. “During my tenure, as president, I’m not going to get caught up in these constitutional amendments. I’m probably not even going to talk about them again, because I cannot personally change the outcome of either of the votes. The people that pay taxes in West Virginia will decide their fate.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle said they were pleased with Hardesty’s selection as state board president and hopeful that the Legislature and education officials can work more collaboratively.
Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason, is a public school teacher who defeated Carmichael in the 2020 Republican primary. After focusing on expanding school choice, Grady said lawmakers want to re-engage on improving public education working with state education officials.
“I think that everybody’s end goal is the same in how we can prepare our youth in West Virginia for the future and to be successful in the future and hopefully to stay in West Virginia,” Grady said. “There’s just lots of conversations that have happened, and I’m really happy with how they’re going.”
Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, was a member of the Greenbrier County Board of Education before becoming a senator. He expressed disappointment in the direction the Republican majority has taken education in West Virginia, though he was hopeful that Hardesty can make a difference.
“I don’t know if it’s possible. I think if it is possible, Paul Hardesty is the guy to do it and I’m very glad he is in that position,” Baldwin said. “If anybody can do it, if anybody can bring these parties together, I think Paul’s the right person for that job.”
Hardesty said that it was imperative for lawmakers and education officials to work together if there is any hope of improving math and reading comprehension rates and preparing the next generations to enter the workforce or higher education.
“I think we all really want what’s best for kids. We just have different paths on how to get there,” Hardesty said. “We’ve got to find a way where we can get close to being on the same page on a lot of issues.”
Steven Allen Adams can be reached at email@example.com.
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