Making the Invisible Visible: What the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike Showed Us All

Yesterday morning the West Virginia Senate joined the House of Representatives in agreeing to a 5 percent raise for the state’s teachers, support staff, bus drivers and West Virginia state troopers.  School reopens today.  This is a good thing for the state’s children and for the state’s teachers. The downside is that the salary increases will come at the expense of $20 million in cuts to general services and Medicaid.

I keep thinking about watching West Virginia’s teachers on the picket line.

Did you notice how many teachers were involved in the strike? Twenty-thousand of them, according to the papers.  The masses of teachers in red t-shirts seemed overwhelming. The system of public education is enormous even in a relatively small state. So many lives were affected by the strike!

Did you notice that addressing the strike was so essential that the Governor and Legislature really had no choice but to meet the teachers’ demands? More than a quarter of a million students were without their schools for over a week.  More than a quarter of a million students without education, without a place to go during the day—many of them without the federally subsidized lunches and breakfasts for which they qualify because their families are poor.

Did you notice that when striking teachers were interviewed, they seemed connected to the students who were standing with them on the picket lines?  Did you notice the stories about teachers preparing lunches for their poorest students before the teachers left in the morning for the picket lines?

Did you notice the spirit and energy of West Virginia’s school teachers? They are just the sort of people a parent would seek for nurturing, stimulating, and educating their children.

Did you notice that most of West Virginia’s children were affected when the state’s public schools shut down?  I don’t know how many parochial schools there are in West Virginia, but it seemed that West Virginia’s school population reflects or exceeds the national average—with over 90 percent of the state’s students enrolled in public schools.

Did you notice that neither the teachers nor their students appear to be millionaires?  For most families in West Virginia, the public schools are what they have, what they are proud of.

Did you notice that nobody really argued that teachers in West Virginia were asking for an overly lavish raise? Neither the public nor members of the legislature seemed shocked at the request. Everybody seemed to agree that teachers should earn enough to be able to support their families and shouldn’t be forced to move to a nearby state to earn a fair salary. Before they finally settled, leaders in the West Virginia Senate argued the state didn’t have enough money to pay for the raises, but everybody pretty much agreed that teachers have been underpaid.

This strike brought our national attention back to what matters and, for me at least, highlighted the ridiculousness of that other public education agenda being promoted by our U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy De Vos. Here—amazingly— is what Betsy DeVos told the children last fall when she made a beginning-of-the-school-year visit to a school in Casper,Wyoming:  “For far too many kids, this year’s first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year’s first day back to school.  And the year before that.  And the generation before that.  And the generation before that… It’s a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons, and denies futures… Today, there is a whole industry of naysayers who loudly defend something they like to call the education ‘system.’ What’s an education ‘system’?  There is no such thing!  Are you a system?  No, you’re individual students, parents and teachers. Here in Casper, and even within your individual families, the unique needs of one student aren’t the same as the next, which is why no school… is a perfect fit for every student.  Schools must be organized around the needs of students, not the other way around…”

Here are some of the ways West Virginia’s teachers confronted Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

Betsy DeVos regularly derides education systems. For DeVos, what really matters are individual parents who, she says, need to have school choice.  But… what I found myself noticing and admiring in West Virginia were the systems—not only the school system, set up across 55 counties, but also the system of teachers’ organizations who, despite a law that prohibits real teachers’ unions, organized and maintained an effective nine-day strike. Then there was the democratic system of government that made it possible for the teachers to make their case for more funding and better salaries and health insurance.

Betsy DeVos always prescribes school choice. But I have been to West Virginia, and I know that the state’s geography cannot support broad-based privatized school choice. The state is a web of tiny towns located in the mountain hollows as well as bigger towns and  a few small cities. When there have been attempts to consolidate high schools in some parts of West Virginia, impossible winding Appalachian mountain roads made bus routes impossible.

Last autumn in Casper, Betsy DeVos complained that public schools dampen dreams, dim horizons and deny futures. But that description doesn’t describe the teachers I have been watching during the West Virginia teachers’ strike.

As West Virginia’s teachers struck for fair salaries and health insurance coverage, they showed us why it is important to bring the national education conversation right back where it belongs—away from the libertarian ideology of Betsy DeVos—and back to the importance of society’s responsibility to provide adequately for its public schools. Here are merely some of the important policy questions underneath the debate in West Virginia’s statehouse.  Have we forgotten the role of government for providing essential services in a systematic way? Are we paying enough taxes at the state and federal levels to remunerate public servants fairly and provide more than the barest minimum for the absolutely essential services our society needs?  Are we abusing public sector workers when taxes are cut and the Supreme Court threatens to curtail their right to organize?

Yesterday’s NY Times featured an article on the West Virginia strike by Dana Goldstein, whose book, The Teacher Wars, traces the history of America’s teaching profession—all the public pressures on teachers and the role of teachers’ unions for fighting to ensure that teachers, educated as professionals, are paid a professional wage.  In yesterday’s NY Times article on this year’s West Virginia teachers’ strike, Goldstein reminds readers that in 1897 Chicago, teachers, “were asked to preside over classrooms of up to 60 children, many of whom could not speak English, in a city surging with immigrants and struggling to control rampant child labor and typhoid in the water.  All for the equivalent of $13,000 a year in today’s dollars.”

Goldstein describes the challenges facing the West Virginia teachers who have been on strike: “Almost every major (teachers’) strike… has come as teachers have been asked to shoulder society’s biggest challenges, from disease to racial inequality, and today in West Virginia, a drug crisis on top of a growing nationwide fear of bloodshed in the classroom.”

Goldstein quotes a high school English teacher from Martinsburg: “In West Virginia we deal with high levels of poverty and the opioid epidemic, but then there are the smaller things, like kids who come in and they don’t have support at home and they just need someone to care about them and love them.”

Jay O’Neal, a seventh-grade English teacher from Charleston, tells Goldstein: “I can’t tell you how many students we have being raised by grandparents because of parents’ drug addictions…  It’s just part of a broader problem teaching here, dealing with the effects of poverty.”

Goldstein adds: “While the state’s cost of living is in the middle of the pack, the state is poor. Its (2016) median household income of $43,385… placed it 49th in the nation, ahead of only Mississippi. West Virginia has the nation’s fourth-highest unemployment rate and an opioid overdose death rate that is more than three times the national average. All of this plays out in the classroom.”

Goldstein believes one of the important accomplishments of the West Virginia teachers’ strike is that it has, once again, made the essentials visible to us: “Today in West Virginia, policymakers have their own ideas about how to improve schools. The state Department of Education has revamped vocational education, while the Republican-controlled Legislature has debated weakening teachers’ seniority protections and providing parents with tax incentives to pay for private school tuition. But striking teachers are asking that first, the state Legislature consider the basics: the salaries and benefits that they say will keep them from fleeing the state.”

9 thoughts on “Making the Invisible Visible: What the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike Showed Us All

  1. The classic definition of a Christian sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” We don’t normally consider a teachers’ strike a sacrament, but thanks, Jan, for helping us see that in this case the definition fits!

  2. Thank you for covering the powerful actions of these teachers in West Virginia, actions that teachers take daily in their classroom, where democracy and care for one another in concrete actions are learned. Would that be celebrated!
    The concrete matters of health insurance and salaries highlight that these lofty goals need to meet material reality.
    And the long road of undermining public institutions, ‘systems’ as you refer to them, has taken us all to the brink of disaster. And the first undermining of our public institutions is by not paying for them.
    Our current governments have undermined the foundational principles of a common good by ‘hollowing out the commons,’ the public goods (privatizing them relentlessly), and have created a gross economic inequality. The Republicans do this, but the Democrats have done their part, so, while they are not equivalent, it is important not to place ALL the blame at their feet.
    And sadly, this mess is all exemplified (in West Virginia) by stealing from Medicaid and general services, and npt getting the corporations (fuel industries) and those with plenty to pay their fare share, to pay the teachers’ legitimate demands.
    This strike is an incredibly hopeful moment. And its results are good, indeed, though far from perfect.
    What an important story!

  3. Reblogged this on Mister Journalism: "Reading, Sharing, Discussing, Learning" and commented:
    “Union Maid” by Woody Guthrie
    There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
    Of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
    She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called,
    And when the Legion boys come ’round
    She always stood her ground.
    Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
    I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union.
    Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
    I’m sticking to the union ’til the day I die.
    This union maid was wise to the tricks of company spies,
    She couldn’t be fooled by a company stool, she’d always organize the guys.
    She always got her way when she struck for better pay.
    She’d show her card to the National Guard
    And this is what she’d say
    You gals who want to be free, just take a tip from me;
    Get you a man who’s a union man and join the ladies’ auxiliary.
    Married life ain’t hard when you got a union card,
    A union man has a happy life when he’s got a union wife.
    Songwriter: Woody Guthrie

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