Spread It Out

Among the most important observations by a consultant who performed an “audit” of public education in West Virginia was that the system is far too centralized. Few state departments of education have as much control as ours, the consultant emphasized.

Now Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, many legislators and even the state Board of Education want to change that. Fortunately, an effective, proven tool – regional education service agencies – already is in place.

Shifting some responsibilities from Charleston to the multi-county RESAs will make the process more responsive to county school systems, proponents of the idea believe. Opponents, including one of the state’s two big teachers’ unions, claim the RESAs are an inefficient waste of money.

But many county school systems have saved money by utilizing RESA programs – and just as important, the regional agencies have provided services some counties could not have afforded at all on their own.

Part of the advantage of RESAs is that they are linked closely to the school systems they serve, with representatives of the counties sitting on the agencies’ boards. RESAs, in short, have some accountability to local school officials – while the state Department of Education has very little.

Not every RESA in West Virginia (there are eight) has a spotless history. A failure of oversight allowed a finance official for a RESA serving six southern counties to embezzle more than $1.3 million between 1999 and 2006. And in 2008, a Martinsburg man was accused of embezzling more than $31,000 from the RESA serving that area.

Since then, better oversight over RESA finances has been established.

As for complaints by the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers that RESAs are not efficient, that does not seem to have been a problem in this area. Still, legislators may want to give county boards of education more authority to monitor RESA programs and insist they be of high quality.

Shifting some responsibility for school quality out of the state DOE in Charleston certainly makes sense – and may save money that could be used in classrooms instead of for layers of bureaucracy. The RESA approach to that makes sense, and legislators should move to implement it.