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State Board President Discusses Changing Face of America

October 22, 1999

In an opinion article mailed to state newspapers this week, West Virginia Board of Education President Cleo P. Mathews discusses the "Changing Face of America" and its impact on the support of schools.  

Following are excerpts from the article written by President Mathews:  

For those of us old enough to remember, 1960 was a wonderful time to be an American. With new houses sprouting up all over the landscape and babies being born into American society at a record pace, all seemed to be good with the world - or at least in our little part of it.  

In 1960, at the peak of the Baby Boom, nearly one-half of all households in this country had children under 18. The parents in these households fervently supported public education, because they realized that their children would be able to better themselves through a quality education. As a result, public schools received overwhelming support from their communities.  

The near-majority of voters with school age children in West Virginia and across the country drove the political process in the 1950s and 1960s. This advocacy was no more evident than at crowded PTA meetings and in the positive public perception of schools.  

As America has grown older, the percentage of households with children under 18 has diminished dramatically. Those neighborhoods bursting at the seams with children in the 50s and 60s are now filled with empty nesters or retired persons, many of whom are considerably less interested in schools than they once were.  

According to the 1990 Census, only a little more than one-third of households in America have children under 18.  

The numbers are startling for West Virginia. While the state's population is almost exactly the same as it was in 1960, its student population has decreased by nearly 40 percent during the same time period.  

As a result of this dramatic decline in the core constituency for education, several counties in West Virginia found it increasingly difficult to pass their school levies in the 80s and 90s - or at least to pass them at the same level as during previous decades. In addition, some school systems have been unable to pass bond referendums to build new schools or to renovate deteriorating facilities which were originally constructed in the 40s and 50s.  

At a time in which support of public schools is even more critical because of societal challenges which have developed and worsened over the past four decades, local funding for some public schools is at risk, much like many of the students they serve. The vast numbers of people who supported public schools in the 50s and 60s have dwindled to the point that the advocates of public education are now the overwhelmed minority.  

The students who were the beneficiaries of unwavering community support in the 50s and 60s - and who because of public education now probably enjoy a higher standard of living than their parents and grandparents - now comprise the majority of today's voters.  

Unfortunately, many voters do not feel a strong connection with public education because they no longer have children in school, and, therefore, they do not perceive the need to support their local schools.  

School systems today are faced with difficult financial challenges exacerbated by the unprecedented loss of students, the school construction boom of the 50s and 60s and the ever-changing political climate. If counties close or consolidate schools to accommodate present student enrollment, they alienate parents and voters, which negatively affects their ability to pass levies and bond issues in order to build new schools or to maintain and renovate existing ones. But if counties keep too many schools open, they face financial ruin or have to cut needed educational services and programs because of the exorbitant costs associated with maintaining and upgrading outdated facilities. The support of public education is an issue that is directly related to maintaining a strong democracy.  

As active participants in this great democracy, we must ask ourselves the following questions which cut to the heart of this moral, civic and financial issue:  

- Do today's students deserve the same enthusiastic support received by previous generations of students?  

- Do we have a moral and civic obligation to support schools just as our parents and grandparents supported us?  

- Given the tremendous challenges facing our young people today and the fact that these same students will be supporting us in our golden years, can we truly afford to scale back our financial commitment to education just to save a few dollars in the short term?  

West Virginia education has made tremendous strides in recent years, especially during the past decade. With test scores on the rise; core curriculum, advanced placement and college prep courses strengthened; and services and programs to all students enhanced in recent years, a greater percentage of students are receiving a higher quality education today than ever before.  

As West Virginians, we need to continue to look past what affects our pocketbooks today to see what is in the state's best interests tomorrow. Just as our parents and grandparents stood tall in their vigorous support of education, it is now time for our generation to do the same.  

It is our turn to stand up for West Virginia's children.

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