May 17, 2019

Time to stop playing games with public education

The results are in.

The West Virginia Department of Education recently sought the input of students, teachers and other school workers, parents and caregivers and other stakeholders about how they wanted to improve education in the state. Over 20,000 people participated.

The goal was to provide information for legislators to consider before the coming special session on education.

The results of the input from public forums, an online survey, and comment cards were published in a 33-page summary titled “West Virginia’s Voice.”

The top priorities are pretty much what you’d expect — unless you’re paid to think otherwise.

Here are the greatest hits:

*There was overwhelming support for increased compensation for teachers and school workers, at a rate of 77 percent of survey respondents and 95 percent for comment cards from forum attendees.

*There’s strong support for public school reforms, such as innovation zones and more flexibility BUT that doesn’t translate into support for charter schools, which basically work like publicly funded private schools: 88 percent of forum respondents were opposed to charter schools, while only six percent supported them.

*If charter schools are unpopular, so are education savings accounts, which would give parents tax dollars for non-public education — by another majority of 88 percent.

*One issue that showed up in different ways in the report was mental health and emotional support for students. The idea of embedding social services in schools was supported by 75 percent of survey respondents and 93 percent of those who submitted comments.

High levels of support were also expressed for increasing the number of student support personnel (counselors, psychologists, and/or social workers).

Educators were also interested in training on how to deal with issues related to trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which is only to be expected given the state’s addiction crisis and persistent child poverty. Tellingly, many educators expressed the need for help addressing the secondary trauma they are experiencing.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which was created by congress in 2000, “Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Each year more than 10 million children in the United States endure the trauma of abuse, violence, natural disasters, and other adverse events. For therapists, child welfare workers, case managers, and other helping professionals involved in the care of traumatized children and their families, the essential act of listening to trauma stories may take an emotional toll that compromises professional functioning and diminishes quality of life.”

I’m sure that would be the situation experienced pretty much daily by most public school teachers in West Virginia.

While we’re at it, despite the claims of astroturf groups funded by out of state billionaires that West Virginia’s schools are “broken,” 76 percent of public school parents agree or strongly agree that they are satisfied with their child’s school.

My suggestion is that those who want to fix broken things might do better to start with a 100-plus year old colonial economy that has sucked out wealth and resources and left behind poverty, despair, addiction, poor health, and environmental degradation. Or political priorities that have favored unproductive corporate tax cuts over investing adequately in children and families.

Those problems didn’t start in our public schools, although education workers seem to be magically expected to fix them all. It’s no wonder that many state teachers are feeling disrespected and demoralized.

I don’t always agree with conservative commentator Hoppy Kercheval, but I think he was right to say in a recent commentary that “The value we place on public education and teachers is not equal to the outcomes we expect.”

It’s time to stop playing games with public education and bring those values and expectations into alignment.

(This ran as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

May 14, 2019

Not all bad

There were some rough and embarrassing moments in the last legislative session, but some good things came out of it.

One that surprised me was the passage of Senate Bill 564, which raised the Medicaid eligibility threshold for pregnant women to 300 percent above the federal poverty level. The bill also provides coverage for the mother for 60 days after birth.

That’s a big deal for several reasons. Obviously, it can improve the health of both the mother and child. More importantly, it can significantly reduce the chances of infant and maternal mortality. Unfortunately, the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. has been increasing.

According to Dr. Jessie Ice of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, the U.S. has the highest MMR level among advanced industrialized nations. It’s one of only eight countries where the MMR is actually increasing — and it’s the only industrialized nation in that group. Globally, MMRs have declined by 44 percent between 1990 and 2015.

Incredibly, American women today are twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than their mothers were. According to Ice, “The average age a woman gives birth in the United States for the first time is a little over 26 years old. A 26-year-old giving birth in 2014 would face an MMR of 18 out of 100,000, while her mother — 26 years prior — was faced with an MMR of 9.4 out of 100,000.”

American women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy- related issues than Canadian women and six times more likely to die than Scandinavian women.

According to Amnesty International, American women living in low income areas are twice as likely to die than those from more affluent communities. African-American women are three to four times more likely to die than white women.

Something is wrong with this picture, but access to health care during and after pregnancy can help reverse the trend. According to an analysis by several MMR review committees, 63 percent of deaths could have been prevented with access to health care.

It’s hard to estimate how many West Virginia women will benefit from this legislation, but 535 mothers gave birth without health insurance last year.

West Virginia has made some major progress in health care over the last few years. Thanks to Medicaid and CHIP, the state is a national leader in insuring kids. Then-Gov. Tomblin’s decision to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act is now bringing coverage — including treatment for addiction — to 160,000 state residents. Covering more pregnant women is another step in the right direction.

In the future, the Legislature should consider extending postpartum Medicaid coverage to at least one year since not all pregnancy-related physical or mental health issues emerge in the first 60 days. Throw in universal access to voluntary in-home family education or home visiting programs for the first two years after birth and we could go far in preventing all kinds of problems and improving outcomes for kids and families for generations to come.

West Virginia is losing population, especially young parents and children. We could all benefit from taking better care of the kids we have and making the state a great place to live and raise a family.