CHARLESTON (AP) - West Virginia must ensure that every child finishes third grade reading at that level, help its nationally certified teachers keep their vaunted status and allow local control of school calendars, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Wednesday in his latest State of the State address.
The governor also vowed to pursue a recent study's recommendations for easing inmate crowding, saying that should save $116 million for corrections and public safety efforts over the next six years.
"What we learned was simple: substance abuse is a huge part of prison overcrowding, and the high re-offending rate intensifies the problem," Tomblin told the Legislature and other state officials in a packed House of Delegates chamber. "We must act now to address these challenges."
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin delivers his annual State of the State speech Wednesday in Charleston.
Tomblin said his agenda for the legislative session that runs until April will also propose greater powers for the highways commissioner, to complete road projects through private sector partnerships. The governor wants lawmakers to create a public nonprofit to oversee the return of former industrial "brownfields" sites to economic use, and loosen a law that Tomblin said threatens employers with lawsuits and damage awards if they don't pay departing workers within 72 hours.
"Small businesses do not need the hassle of re-running payroll every time an employee moves on," the governor said.
While touting signs of a stable financial picture, Tomblin outlined a lean spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1. It includes $4.45 billion from general tax and lottery revenues, a nearly $129 million drop from the current budget. It reflects cuts previously called for by Tomblin, which total around $75 million.
The proposed budget avoids tax hikes, layoffs, or tapping emergency reserves, the governor said. It keeps intact funding for the PROMISE college scholarship program, public school funding, the State Police and a previously threatened program that helps low income workers afford child day care.
A native of the coalfields, Tomblin re-affirmed the support for mining he espoused as a longtime legislator and as governor finishing an unexpired term - before winning a full four-year term in November. The industry has lost 5,000 state jobs within the last year, and state revenues have suffered as well.
"I believe in the production of coal, its value to our country, and I will continue to do everything that I can to fight the EPA and its misguided attempts to cripple this industry," Tomblin said.
Education dominated the 40-minute speech. Tomblin drew heavily from the much-discussed audit that contrasted hefty spending - the proposed budget will devote $2 billion to public schools, or 46 percent of general tax and lottery revenues - with the bottom-of-the-barrel rankings for student performance.
"Education in West Virginia must change, and that change begins now," the governor vowed.
Tomblin declared as unacceptable the state's 78 percent high school graduation rate, and the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress rankings that put West Virginia below average in 21 of 24 categories. To reach his third-grader reading goal, Tomblin is enlisting the state Board of Education to make sure all elementary school teachers have that specific training, wants to require all 55 counties to offer full-day preschool within three years, and supports the nonprofit Benedum Foundation's efforts in this area.
"If a child cannot read at grade level by the end of the 3rd grade, bad things happen," Tomblin said. "They will remain poor readers in high school, and they will be more likely to become high school dropouts."
The school calendar proposal aims to help counties meet the 180-day target for instruction by making better use of 12 days set aside for other purposes. Tomblin said state students only averaged 170 days of instructional time last year. While praising the year-round calendar adopted by a handful of schools and advocated by the state board, Tomblin said he proposal will not mandate any particular plan.
The education measures would also pay for the state's nearly 700 qualifying teachers to renew their National Board Certification every 10 years, require updated programing at all vocational schools and harness technology to improve individual student learning through such efforts as the national Project 24 campaign led by former Gov. Bob Wise.
Citing the audit's description of a top-heavy education bureaucracy and rigid rules, Tomblin wants teacher training shifted to counties, principals and teachers given a greater voice in hiring, and seniority given less weight.
But the governor also cited how the state's student population has dropped 26 percent over the last three decades.
"I believe the community, especially parents, should always have access to locally elected officials who oversee their schools," he said. "But that does not mean we can and should provide all the current administrative overhead to each of our 55 county school boards."
Tomblin also proposed updating state law overseeing pipeline safety, following the December rupture of a natural gas line in Sissonville that destroyed a section of Interstate 77 and torched four area homes. He called for fines of up to $200,000 per violation, per day.
Another proposal aims to ensure that law enforcement can pull over and test drivers under the influence of drugs.
The governor also launched FaceYourFutureWV.com, a website offering help to West Virginians who can't pass a drug test needed for work.