By Joe Manchin

It is time for West Virginia to take a good look at our education system and decide if we are truly operating in the best interests of our children or our communities.

Growing up in the small town of Farmington, West Virginia I benefited from going to a small high school where everyone knew each other and the school's activities were always intertwining with the daily life of the community. I was not lost in the crowd in Farmington; I was recognized as an individual and embraced as a member of the community.

The town took pride in its students and their accomplishments, and the students took pride in the town. However, during the first years of the consolidation movement in West Virginia, Farmington High School was closed, and the town has never been the same.

This scenario has played out in many communities throughout West Virginia over the past 20 years, and I, for one, believe its time we said enough is enough.

We must start standing up for our small communities, and the children who live in them, or they will be lost to us forever. That is why I support the legislation introduced by Governor Wise that would slow school consolidation, provide money for smaller schools and, most importantly, decrease the time that many West Virginia children are forced to spend on school buses.

I also agree with the Challenge West Virginia report that calls West Virginia's school consolidation efforts during the 1990's a failure.

We already know that in many cases school consolidation is not in the best interests of our children - especially the students that have to spend three hours a day on a school bus just to get an education.

But we let it continue because we were told that it was the financially responsible thing to do, only to learn now that not only was it a waste of our children's time - it was a waste of our taxpayers' money as well.

According to the Challenge West Virginia report entitled, "A Decade of Consolidation: Where are the savings?" even though 200 schools were closed and enrollment dropped by 34,000 students during the past decade, West Virginia increased education spending more than any other state while not seeing any improvement in student achievement.

For a comparison we can look Vermont, a state similar to West Virginia in size and student enrollment numbers. Vermont has maintained its small schools and although it spends $2,000 less per student than West Virginia, student achievement data places them at 4th in the nation. On the other hand, West Virginia is ranked 4th nationally in the amount we spend per student, yet our students rank 39th in achievement.

In addition, teacher salaries only increased 5% over the past ten years when adjusted for inflation, while administrator costs increased 12% and transportation costs increased 11%. Talk about an example of wastefulness.

According to this report, our students, and the teachers that are responsible for their education, are being left to fend for themselves while the majority of our money and resources are being used to pay for more administrators and for increased transportation costs associated with the closing of small, community based schools. No wonder so many parents across West Virginia are up in arms.

Frankly, our children deserve better.

West Virginia has a higher percentage of its total education budget going to busing than any other state and operates the most expensive transportation program in the country based on cost per pupil and cost per mile.

In many cases, the two and three hour a day bus rides caused by the closing of our small, community based schools are not only inefficient, they're inhumane. Does anyone really think that a student that spends 3 1/2 hours a day on a school bus is ready to learn?

Even if the school is a Taj Mahal, what good is it if the child is too tired to learn once he or she gets there? This just doesn't make good common sense.

Research shows that the smaller the school the better students do in achievement, attitude, behavior, extracurricular activities and attendance. It's time that we start paying attention to the facts and start standing up for what is right. The future of our children, and our small communities, depends upon it.