Members of the Senate’s Committee on Education were lambasted by a union leader Wednesday for proposing legislation on issues already being addressed in the territory while schools, students and teachers are in dire need of funding.
At a committee hearing in Frederiksted, Cecil Benjamin, president of the St. Croix chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, ripped into senators for proposing legislation already being worked on by the Department of Education. The proposed bills ranged from requirements aimed at having the Board of Education provide a structured civics course in the public school curriculum, establishing a computer education program and a minimum basic skills and competencies assessment program.
"Where is all this coming from," Benjamin asked, in regard to Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole’s bill that would mandate civics instruction and Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd’s proposal that calls for the assessment program and exit exams for students. "We are doing those things. They are there."
Funding, Benjamin said, is the issue senators should be concentrating on. The union leader recited a laundry list of woes facing education in the territory, including a lack of text books and equipment, deteriorating schools, low pay and back pay owed to teachers.
"Let's find a way to find some money to take care of the problems in the Virgin Islands," Benjamin said. "Let’s stop the political gamesmanship to get votes and keep our jobs."
Cole said he wants to see mandatory civics classes in the territory’s schools because too many students don’t know how government – both local and federal – works. But Education Commissioner Ruby Simmonds said her department was already working on integrating such a program into the curriculum.
Liburd, meanwhile, said a number of states require exit exams before students graduate.
"The bill seems to ensure the students are actually learning…" he said. "We must have some tool to measure how we’re doing."
But Simmonds said the DOE must be careful about setting local mandates for testing because the cash-strapped V.I. government would have to fund them. Currently, national testing is funded by the federal government. She said an exit exam program would cost $100,000 a year for materials and scoring alone.
"The legislation doesn’t make things happen," Simmonds said. "I really think it’s dangerous to go the route of legislating instruction."
But Liburd said his plan for exit exams goes back to 1995 before the DOE was considering such a test. While he conceded that the DOE has since started working on the idea, his plan would be a back-up.
"My position on legislating is to make sure these things happen," Liburd said. "It’s not about drafting legislation to draft legislation."
In addition to Cole and Liburd’s bills, which were tabled until the committee meets again, senators discussed the Safe School Act of 1999, legislation that would strengthen the territory’s school safety provisions.


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