On February 22, school teachers across all 55 county school districts in West Virginia shut down the state’s schools by going on strike. West Virginia’s teachers say they cannot afford to support their families. The strike involves about 20,000 teachers and over 250,000 students.
Here is Sarah Jaffe in the NY Times: Strikes as broad as the one in West Virginia are vanishingly rare. But when they do happen, the prove that our labor history is not that deeply buried… West Virginia’s teachers, along with the rest of the state’s government workers, never got the legal right to collective bargaining, yet even without that right, teachers and school service workers have united across a largely rural state… By rising up against austerity, they have set an example for the rest of the labor movement and made it clear that they fight for the rights of all workers rather than special treatment for a few. The teachers were on strike as the oral arguments began last week in Janus v. AFSCME at the Supreme Court, a case that seems likely to push public workers across the country closer to the lack of protections West Virginians have.”
Jaffe believes that despite Janus, what is happening in West Virginia is a sign of hope: “(I)n West Virginia, where… the teachers are near the bottom of the national pay scale, teachers have no special privileges, no agency fees, no bargaining tables at all. Their unions are ‘associations’ that mostly aside from one other major strike in 1990, lobby for laws to win what other unions bargain over….” And yet West Virginia’s teachers have maintained solidarity for what today is the ninth day the strike has kept schools closed.
On Tuesday, February 27, Governor James C. Justice met with teachers and promised a 5 percent pay increase and a task force to explore ways to address rapidly rising health care premiums for teachers. The West Virginia House agreed to the 5 percent raise, but the deal fell apart on Saturday March 3, when the West Virginia Senate cut the House’s proposed raise to 4 percent. Intense negotiations continued last night all through the evening, but school remains closed today.
A year ago, when Education Week compared teachers’ salaries, ranking the top ten states and the bottom. West Virginia’s teachers were sixth from the bottom, beating out only Arizona, North Carolina, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and lowest of all, Mississippi. Education Week adds that cost of living measured in things like housing expenses is much higher in the states like New York, where average teacher pay at $76,593 is the near the top. But there is another important concern for places like West Virginia, where average teachers’ pay is $45,477 and Alaska—the highest paying state for teachers, where the average salary is $77,843. Apparently Alaska’s school districts realize they must pay a premium to draw teachers to a distant and pretty lonely setting for many teachers. While West Virginia isn’t quite so remote, many of its small Appalachian communities remain unattractive just because they are so isolated. In places like West Virginia and Oklahoma—whose average teacher’s salary at $42,647 is below West Virginia’s—a teachers’ shortage looms.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), West Virginia is among the states where state formula per student funding has dropped below pre-recession levels—down 11.4 percent since 2008. CBPP reports: “Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia… have been hurt by declines in prices for oil and other natural resources.” Unlike several other states whose per-pupil general funding has dropped since 2008, at least West Virginia has abstained from further slashing state taxes.
I think the West Virginia teachers’ strike, a desperate action by the teachers across an entire state to call attention to the undervaluing of their work, ought to make us consider the daily work of teachers. No Child Left Behind and other test-and-punish school reforms over two decades have unfairly demanded that teachers raise students’ test scores without considering a mass of outside of school factors that affect scores. The result has been widespread scapegoating of school teachers.
In the mid 1990s, Mike Rose, a UCLA professor of education, spent four years traveling across the United States visiting classrooms in public schools. Possible Lives, the story of Rose’s journey, remains a timely book of hope. In the book’s conclusion, Rose reflects on the teachers whose classrooms he observed: “To begin, the teachers we spent time with were knowledgeable. They knew subject matter or languages or technologies, which they acquired in a variety of ways: from formal schooling to curriculum-development projects to individual practice and study. In most cases, this acquisition of knowledge was ongoing, developing; they were still learning, and their pursuits were a source of excitement and renewal. But, of course, good teachers not only know things, but are also adept at conveying what they know: presenting it, clarifying it, sparking interest in it, using it to generate thought and action. Part of the pleasure of this journey for me was being guided through books I hadn’t read before, working, with a fresh take, calculations I had long since forgotten, considering a historical or current event in an unexpected context… As one teaches, one’s knowledge plays out in social space, and this is one of the things that makes teaching such a complex activity. As studies of teacher cognition have shown, and as we saw in the classrooms we visited, teaching well means knowing one’s students well and being able to read them quickly…. There is another dimension to the ability to make judgments about instruction. The teachers we observed operate with a knowledge of individual student’s lives, of local history and economy, and of social-cultural traditions and practices… At heart, the teachers in Possible Lives were able to affirm in a deep and comprehensive way the capability of the students in their classrooms.” (Possible Lives, pp. 418-422)
I worry that after nearly two decades of accountability-based, test-and-punish school reform, we’ve forgotten how to think about what teachers do. Fair and adequate salaries for teachers are important as a way to honor the work teachers undertake day after day. Do we care any longer about the human relationships that make our children feel valued at school and that enable them to learn? As Rose helps us see in his description of school visits all across the United States, the adults who shape our children’s education at school are as important in West Virginia as in New York or Illinois or Oregon or Alaska or Alabama.