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Abolish county borders?

January 29, 1997

It's still early yet, but the first signs coming from the administration of West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood indicate that the state's new chief executive is open to a variety of new ideas, particularly when they involve education. One in particular makes so much sense we're surprised no one's thought of it before.

The idea? Let students attend the school closest to them, regardless of whether the school is outside their home counties. Transition-team leaders told the governor that long bus rides are no help to students who could avoid them if officials could concentrate on children instead of on border lines.

The same concentration on borders has also hurt efforts to consolidate schools in some areas, said team leaders, who said some students have tackled the problem on their own by falsifying their addresses so they could attend nearby schools.

What would it take to abolish the political borders that now govern school system funding? Probably some system of credits that would allow one county to pay another for educating an out-of-county student, and a system of state guidelines that would specify when such payments would be made.

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Such guidelines could, for example, mandate that a county would have to pay to have a student educated out of county if keeping that student in his or her "home" area meant a bus ride of longer than 30 minutes. Figuring out how to assess each county's costs in school-consolidation cases would be tougher, since officials would have to take into consideration the age of school facilities and their suitability for expansion or renovation.

This issue involves more than student convenience, because, according to the transition report, over the next seven years West Virginia's high school enrollment will drop by 20 percent. Consolidation will be a financial necessity in some areas.

It's a pity the public schools don't have the same options as the state's colleges, which can affect their enrollment by developing more liberal policies and fees for out-of-state students to live on campus. In the lower grades, however, the priority has to be educating students as close to home as possible.

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