January 25, 2019

The empire strikes back

Well, I guess the leadership of the WV senate is out to avenge our teachers and school workers for last year's victory. Yesterday, they unveiled their plan, which includes penalties for work stoppages, messing with union dues, charter schools, and ore. Here's Ryan Quinn from the Gazette on the bill.

Before the bill came out, I wrote out some thoughts for supporters of public education about what a decent approach to education reform might be. Here goes:

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”—Nelson Mandela
Coming of age is never easy—and growing up in West Virginia has always had its challenges. But today children face an array of problems new and old, ranging from the opioid crisis to a changing economy to persistent poverty. 
It’s been calculated that from birth to the time a child reaches 18 years of age, he or she will spend only around 13 percent of time in a school setting, yet school personnel deal with 100 percent of the child’s issues every day.
When it comes to helping kids cope with the present and prepare for the future, West Virginia’s public school teachers and service workers are in the front lines. Our children need a strong system of public education more now than ever.
To protect and strengthen West Virginia’s system of public education, we support the following principles:
Adequate funding for public education, including infrastructure, personnel, equipment, textbooks and materials. We support pay increases for teachers and school support workers, including sustainable funding of the Public Employees Insurance Agency. We oppose tax cut policies that would reduce the ability of state and local governments to support education, such as eliminating the business machinery property tax.
Innovation yes, privatization no. We recognize the need for education experimentation and innovation, such as community schools, new ways to promote STEM and /or entrepreneurship, and more informed approaches to dealing with trauma. We believe these can be achieved through existing mechanisms such as innovation zones and without further legislation.
We oppose diverting public funding to privatization efforts such as charter schools or voucher programs. We agree with Governor Jim Justice, who said “I just believe that today as we strive to provide a better education for everyone, we don’t really need to cherry pick the privileged until we get our public education system in a really good way,” he said.
We support lowering teacher/student ratios to ensure that students receive adequate personal attention from teachers., including a student ratio 1:15 for elementary, 1:18 middle school, and 1:20 high school.
We support efforts to address mental health issues for students, including increasing mental health professionals in schools so that students can be assessed and referred to appropriate treatments as necessary; creating a statewide mental health task force to identify strengths, gaps and best practices and create a strategic plan to address the issues; and train teachers and school support workers to better deal with trauma.
Specifically, we recommend a ratio of 1:250 social 1:250 social workers and counselors and a 1:1000 ratio psychologists as well as complete wraparound services including full time in school-based nurses in every school.
We propose the strengthening of Local School Involvement Councils (LSICs), including the creation of a statewide LSIC advisory committee and the representation of students, mental health professionals and disadvantaged parents on local LSICs.
We support after school expansion providing all schools with funding for after school programs including a transportation component.
We support the creation of a virtual schools advisory council to consist of teachers, classroom facilitators, administrators, parents and students in order to promote best practices in online education.
We support expanding early childhood education, including pre-K and in-home family education. We support universal access to voluntary home visiting programs for expecting parents and families with infants and toddlers.
We support efforts to provide free post-secondary education at the vocational and community college level. As a long-term goal, we propose debt-free higher education at public colleges and universities for all students.
We believe that the strengthening of our public schools is vital for the future of our democracy. In the words of Horace Mann, a pioneer in American education, “Education then beyond all other devices of human origin is the great equalizer of the conditions of men the balance wheel of the social machinery.”

January 21, 2019

An inspiring moment

When it comes to watching the WV legislature, I'm generally pretty jaded. Maybe even cynical, especially for the last few years. But last week, I was honestly moved emotionally by debates in the House Judiciary Committee.

The topic was a bill that would restore eligibility for SNAP (formerly food stamp) assistance to people convicted of drug felonies. It's one of our top priorities this year in a state struggling with the opioid epidemic and in need of supporting recovery efforts.

As a result of ill-thought-out policies enacted in the 1996 federal welfare "reform" bill, people with such felonies are denied SNAP benefits for life...unless states opt out. As of now, all but three states, including...you guessed it...West Virginia, have done so.

(I don't want to give anyone ideas, but this is the only class of felony convictions to which the lifetime ban applies. I've sometimes joked, darkly, that if the fictional cannibalistic villain Hannibal Lector would have gotten out of prison, he would have been eligible for SNAP...although he probably wouldn't have needed it).

To state the obvious, people who have committed drug felonies, like anyone else, still need to eat. And they have major obstacles to employment. And they are in danger of relapsing, especially in the first few years. And if they live in families eligible for SNAP, the benefit level is lower than it otherwise would have been due to this policy

And the policy is flawed on its own terms. Many crimes may be drug related, from theft to assault and beyond. But unless they were specifically prosecuted as drug felonies, the ban would not apply.

Anyhow, late last week, the House Judiciary Committee took up a bill eliminating the lifetime ban. It faced surprisingly little resistance aside from a proposed amendment, eventually withdrawn, to delay eligibility.

I was inspired by the statements of several delegates, including especially Chairman John Shott, who spoke out for basic human mercy and decency.

The bill passed the committee with no amendments and with only one "nay" vote.

It's nice to know that mercy, however occasionally, still has a home in West Virginia.