Ryan Quinn during a House Education Committee meeting in January, 2020. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislature

The West Virginia Capitol is bustling again. Lobbyists are cornering politicians, pounding the marble floor to save or kill legislation. The bell is ringing throughout the corridors, calling late lawmakers to floor sessions. 

But I won’t be stuffing myself in a seat in that cramped House Education Committee room. For the first time in about eight years, I’m not covering a regular legislative session. It’s one part of my job at the Charleston Gazette-Mail that I won’t miss.

Now I can close Twitter and the Capitol livestreams and pay no mind to the latest bill or last-minute amendment.   

It can seem like everything, and nothing, is happening at the Legislature all at once. But, at least in K-12, some of West Virginia’s longstanding education issues continue to plague the state despite so much education legislation passing since Republicans took over.

I moved to West Virginia in early 2014. That November, Republicans won control of both legislative chambers for the first time in 80 years. The next month, I started reporting on education and continued doing so until the end of last year.    

That included reams of stories about how lawmakers’ actions affected K-12 students and teachers: on the push to repeal Common Core standards, two school strikes that flooded the Capitol with employees, the voluminous and rushed-through 2019 “omnibus” education bill, legislation targeting what some dubbed “critical race theory,” the passage of “school choice” laws and much more.

It was a near-relentless clash between newly-empowered Republicans trying to pass their agenda and teachers and others protesting these changes. Amid this, school employees walked out to preserve their health benefits due to a continued lack of sufficient, long-term funding.  

But education problems persisted: Poor students and families, a lack of trained teachers, chronic absenteeism and — related — the overuse of school suspensions. School facilities continued to deteriorate, and some districts chose consolidation as a solution. 

I fear part of this continued failure was due to journalists, including myself, being reactive rather than proactive. We, or at least I, focused on writing about the agenda legislative leaders were planning, the bills they were pushing and the response to these many initiatives from school employees, officials, parents, education researchers and others.

That’s crucial, but missing from the legislative coverage was pausing to lay out what the real problems are and how experts suggest solving them. Sometimes that might have clashed with the route the leadership was pursuing. Perhaps the chosen route was simply beside the point. It just makes little sense for journalists with years of experience on their beats to have most of their coverage led by the decisions of a revolving cast of lawmakers.   

Maybe this isn’t the place of a traditional reporter. It certainly feels unorthodox. But West Virginia seems to lack people with the will, knowledge and a big enough megaphone to get What Needs to Be Done out there.  

Legislators can, if they have the collective will, address all sorts of issues, and even non-issues, during regular sessions. They’ll be in Charleston full-time until mid-March. Plus, the governor has repeatedly called additional special sessions for lawmakers to pass more laws.

During my time covering education, lawmakers made some advances. Several across-the-board raises increased school workers’ salaries, though inflation diluted those gains. Legislators poured tens of millions of dollars into shoring up their health insurance but, again, that infusion is dwindling and PEIA is once again facing a financial cliff.

The funding for school facilities looks as bleak: the state School Building Authority canceled its major annual construction and renovation grant awards last year amid sharply increasing construction costs.  

My tenure reporting on West Virginia’s education system wasn’t as long, or direct, as the careers of teachers or principals who have spent decades in schools. It wasn’t even as long as a student’s K-12 tenure. But I did have the rare position of following the issues from a state level.  

Perhaps it goes without saying, but poverty, West Virginia’s seemingly most intractable problem, is likely what most strains its education system.

School board members and education administrators can use, and have used, student poverty as an excuse for their own shortcomings. It’s important to note that other poor states outperform West Virginia in various areas. There are policies that can ameliorate poverty’s effects. But the pall that poverty casts over education does make it difficult to tell which individual officials are ineffective — or even incompetent — and which policies are ill-advised.

Think about it: Why does McDowell County constantly have among the state’s lowest test scores, while Monongalia and Ohio counties are consistently in the top tier, despite changing superintendents and county board members over the years? There are specifics that local reporting, crucially, can suss out, but when these student outcome trends recur year after year, zooming out is wise.

Think about it more: California and many other states led by Democrats have higher test scores than West Virginia, yet so does Florida, home of high-profile Republicans Jeb Bush and Ron DeSantis. What do families, in general, have more of in both of those states? Money.

There’s an exhausting debate over the importance of public school per-pupil expenditures nationwide, including some local back and forth about what should or shouldn’t be included in calculating West Virginia’s figure. But a family’s own finances often matter more to a student’s success — besides a comfortable home life, a rich-enough family can even afford to send their child outside of a sub-par public school.

Much of national education journalism, laudably, focuses on poor students’ plight, and how schools are or should be helping them achieve. It makes sense, given an education reporter’s job title, for them to focus on what schools can do to help these children.

But the most important point is this: There shouldn’t be such a thing as “poor children.” That should be a disturbing oxymoron. Combining those words should elicit Congressional investigations into how those who did nothing to deserve suffering are suffering nonetheless.

Generally, nationally, where income levels are higher, so are test scores. Anything lawmakers do to lift people from poverty — actually lifting them, not just cutting taxes if that also means cutting services — will likely lift scores.

And it’s scores that have recently embarrassed this state, seemingly sending a wake-up call to at least some state Board of Education members.

One of my final stories was on West Virginia setting record lows on the U.S. Education Department’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, a nationally comparable test pored over by researchers and other education observers.

Scores dropped across the country, likely due to the pandemic and states’ responses to it. But West Virginia’s declines exceeded most other states’, and its scores were already below the national average. Also, the Mountain State’s score declines began before the pandemic.  

This data is from the fourth and eighth grades, and was released in the fall.

The test is only given to public school students. So, unless conservatives’ argument that private- and home-schooling competition improves public schooling comes true on a grand scale, West Virginia’s sweeping new non-public school vouchers program won’t help.

And, as discussed ad nauseum over years of debate, that law could even hurt because West Virginia bases public school districts’ funding largely on their enrollment levels. Students leaving public schools means dollars leaving while, in many cases, fixed costs like building maintenance remain. Officials could shut down more public schools, but that could increase transportation costs.

Public school supporters sometimes denounce the poor NAEP and other standardized test results as unreliable. Some like to point to West Virginia’s exceptional high school graduation rates — which aren’t based on standardized tests. Students passing or failing classes is instead based on individual decisions by teachers, or school officials trying to pull rank on them, or online credit recovery programs.

If you don’t like standardized testing, you might like NAEP. Unlike state standardized tests, it’s not given to every student every year in a large swath of grade levels. Instead, a random, representative sample of students takes it, reducing the testing burden on schools.

And if public school supporters completely reject national or statewide standardized measures, they may be unwittingly parroting arguments from the “school choice” movement they denounce.

I’m old enough to remember when that movement focused on criticizing public schools’ test scores and other metrics and suggested alternatives based on that. Now, I more often hear it push unlimited parent choice while condemning “one-size-fits-all” education and state-mandated learning standards. Those who support largely unregulated homeschooling, private schooling and now microschooling may not want an easy way to compare local outcomes from those to public schooling.  

What gets measured, they say, gets done. But it seems West Virginia leaders do a weak job of doing. The problems are apparent. Experts have provided potential solutions. But the state isn’t carrying them out — at least not in enough schools, for enough time. 

Data, if collected correctly, confirms or disabuses us of anecdotal conclusions about our education system. This state has test data, poverty data, teacher certification data, attendance data, discipline data, school closure data and more. I always wanted more — if you give a mouse a cookie, etc. — but the information we have now is already troubling.

It shows where the problems have been for years. It’s the attention, and action, that are lacking.

Ryan Quinn was the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s Education Reporter from 2014 until December, 2022. He is now faculty issues reporter for Inside Higher Ed.