Lawmakers address need for school tech access

WHEELING – West Virginia lawmakers scored an important victory in passing wide-ranging education reform legislation earlier this year, but leadership in both the Senate and House of Delegates acknowledge the war is far from won.

House Minority Leader Tim Armstead said in neighboring Virginia, where student achievement consistently ranks among the nation’s best, there is one state-level administrator for every 4,000 students. But in West Virginia, there is one for every 400 – yet its students continually lag behind their peers in other states.

Reducing the influence of bureaucracy in the Mountain State’s classrooms, he believes, will be key moving forward.

“It’s not a matter of if we’re spending enough, it’s how we’re spending it,” Armstead, R-Kanawha, said during a panel discussion between journalists and state legislators during the West Virginia Press Association’s annual convention at Oglebay Park’s Wilson Lodge.

House of Delegates Speaker Tim Miley agrees that “a large bureaucracy in Charleston” telling teachers how to do their jobs is counterproductive.

“Every teacher that I’ve met … that I thought was a good teacher was a very creative person,” Miley, D-Harrison, said.

Panelists including Senate President Jeff Kessler, a Marshall County Democrat, and J. Michael Myer, executive editor of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, stressed that no legislation can replace parental involvement in a child’s education.

“If every parent in every school in every county doesn’t say, ‘I want what’s best for my kid’ … we’re still going to have one-fifth of the kids in this state enter adulthood not prepared for it,” Myer said, referring to West Virginia’s high school dropout rate.

Panelists also addressed the issue of access to technology in rural areas, prompted by a recent report that only 59 percent of Mountain State households subscribe to high-speed Internet, while more than one-third don’t even own a computer.

“Information is knowledge, and information is power. … I think we need to make sure these kids have the ability to continue that ongoing process when they get home (from school). … In my opinion, we haven’t done enough,” Kessler said.

But Armstead pointed out state funding for broadband access also can be used for promotion, not just direct expansion of Internet service. This, he said, leads to taxpayer support of companies that offer such service free for a short period of time, then charge high rates of customers who can’t afford to pay.

“I don’t think we’re using these funds efficiently,” Armstead said.

And Edward Given, editor of the Braxton Citizens’ News, believes it’s folly to assume everyone in West Virginia actually wants broadband Internet.

“One thing we’re failing to realize is that there’s a tremendous amount of people in West Virginia … who could care less” about Internet access, Given said.

He suggested legislative assistance might be better directed toward expanding the hours of public facilities with high-speed Internet, such as schools and libraries, so people can use those resources when they need them.