CHARLESTON – For a few thousand years, people believed that the earth was the center of the universe and that all heavenly bodies spun around it. Aristotle offered philosophical proof and, later, Ptolemy offered scientific proof. The Catholic Church believed so strongly in the Aristotelian cosmology (and the technical proof from Ptolemy) that scientists such as Galileo were imprisoned or worse because they dared offer telescopic evidence that the earth wasn’t the center.
While it’s easy to chuckle to ourselves about the naiveté of our misinformed ancestors, admit it: we all know that in a few hundred years, our progeny will be laughing at us about something that we all believe today to be the absolute truth. A few models on which we base so much will turn out to be demonstrably inaccurate. And just as with the failed model of the earth-centered universe, our own inaccurate models hold us back, preventing us from making certain progress in any meaningful way.
We don’t have to wait for centuries, however, to understand that a model much closer to home is, like Aristotle’s, fundamentally flawed, and everything we base on it is laughably tragic. That model is West Virginia’s county-based system of education; and unless we eliminate that, we’ll never make meaningful reforms.
No matter how many clever attempts at revision are made — class size, special pay for certain teachers, revised testing, a pipe dream of rural charter schools — no matter how ingenious the legislation or confrontational the politics, until we deal with the fact that a county-based system is unnecessarily duplicative and administratively absurdly expensive, we’ll never be able to achieve in education what we could and should.
No other state has a county-based system of schools. That’s right: West Virginia is alone in having school districts conform to county lines. Think about it. That means that some counties with entire populations the size of one urban high school have their own school systems — with their own superintendents and staff, school bus directors, maintenance supervisors, federal compliance officers, etc.
Such excessive spending on administration is a main reason that West Virginia is always in the top third of states in the amount of money that’s spent per student, but among the lowest in teacher pay which, in turn, too often results in substandard student achievement.
In fact, eliminating the 55 school districts and replacing them with about a dozen would dramatically drop the cost of administration to the point that every teacher could get a raise and the taxpayers would still save money.
So what do other states do to form school districts if they don’t use irrelevant county border lines? Other states have code that mandates that a school district have no fewer and no more than a certain number of students. The systems are — surprise! — student-centered, not politically derived.
Such a change here would require a constitutional amendment. Passing such an amendment takes real leadership with genuine political courage.
Or it takes citizens who are fed up with a failed system to rise up and make enough noise to get the attention of legislators to approve a constitutional amendment for the voters’ consideration. The main road blocks are the county boards and the administrative employees themselves who wield considerable, raw political power. They’ll challenge any political figure who dares question their reason for purpose.
But, in a different arena, we’ve been there before. In the 1980s, the Legislature had that kind of courage to begin another regionalization, that of the local county jails. It was met with hostility and political adversity, primarily from some powerful sheriffs.
The future then was clear, however: No county would be able to sustain the costs to meet various federal standards for constructing and operating a jail. In fact, without a regional jail system, the counties would likely be paying more than double today what they pay now for inmate per diems — and that doesn’t include bonds for new jail construction or the legal and insurance costs that they would surely have to pay now, too, had the state not regionalized the jails.
That example should be enough to cause our legislators to pause as they go forward in continuing to prop up the failed model of county-based schools.
What officer holder, politician or political hobbyist multi-millionaire will take up the challenge and tell the truth about what’s really at the bottom of our admittedly inadequate school system? Who will educate West Virginians about the benefits of larger school districts? Who’ll lead the constitutional amendment fight?
I don’t think we have a couple of thousand years to wait around.
Canterbury is former administrator of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and was executive director of the Regional Jail Authority from 1997-2005. This opinion piece originally appeared in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.