West Virginia House Kills Education Bill After Teachers Strike to Block School Privatization

Yesterday, Tuesday, West Virginia’s teachers walked out to protest an omnibus education bill moving through the state legislature. The bill, known as Senate Bill 451, included another pay raise for teachers, but the Republican dominated West Virginia Senate had also inserted poison pills—authorization for seven charter schools and a statewide education savings account neo-voucher program for 1000 eligible students with special needs.

At noon yesterday, as schools were shut down in 54 of the state’s 55 counties and teachers from across the state had gathered at the statehouse, the West Virginia House of Delegates voted to table Senate Bill 451 indefinitely—killing the bill.

Teachers announced last night, however, that their strike will continue through today, Wednesday, because of fears that some members of the legislature will try to resurrect the bill.  All of the state’s public schools have been closed today.

Yesterday’s statewide walkout was almost exactly a year after the state’s teachers struck for decent pay.  At the end of last year’s strike, teachers won a 5 percent raise.  In October, Governor Jim Justice promised teachers an additional raise this year.

West Virginia is among the states that has, until now, not pursued marketplace school choice through the creation of charter schools or any kind of voucher program. The Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education recently graded West Virginia A+ for its commitment to public education and its avoidance of these schemes to privatize the public schools.

This week’s sudden teachers’ strike broke an impasse in an all-Red state, with a Republican governor, and Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature.  The Senate had, however, shown itself to be more ideological, filling the omnibus Senate Bill 451 with ideas straight out of the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which offers model legislation for the very programs that seemed to be priorities of key Republicans in the West Virginia Senate—charter schools and education savings account neo-vouchers.

When the original Senate Bill 451 moved to the West Virginia House of Delegates over a week ago modifications ensued. By examining how the House altered the Senate version, it is easy to see why teachers understood the original bill as the Senate’s retaliation against their strike a year ago. The House amended the bill by slashing out the education savings account vouchers and paring down the charter school pilot program to two new schools.  For West Virginia Metro News, Brad McElhinny explains the amendments added last week by the House: “The bill changed in several key ways during almost two weeks of consideration in the House.  A non-severability clause was removed right away.  That would have meant the whole bill, including the teacher pay raise would have been struck down if any element were successfully challenged in court.  A ‘paycheck protection’ provision was removed too.  That would nave mandated annual approval for teachers union members to have their dues withheld from paychecks.  Unions viewed it as an anti-organized labor provision.  The Senate’s version allowed charter schools. That’s still in the bill, but barely. House Education at first capped the charters at six. Now there’s a pilot program for two…  A provision establishing educational savings accounts was removed by delegates in decisive votes… The House Education committee also voted to remove an entire section detailing the consequences of a work stoppage. Originally, the bill specified withholding pay if a work stoppage closed schools… The Education Committee altered a section that would have removed seniority as the main factor in job retention.”

The strike this week was announced late on Monday after the House version of the bill was sent back to await Senate action.  McElhinny reported Monday night: “The House of Delegates, which also has a Republican majority, made significant changes to the bill last week, scaling back many of its original provisions.  But Monday afternoon, when the Senate got the bill again, leadership introduced one big amendment that would include 1,000 education savings accounts and up to seven charter schools… Union leaders said those changes, plus the perception that elected officials have not listened to educators, left no choice but to strike.”

Yesterday morning, after teachers walked out statewide, Governor Jim Justice declared in a radio interview that he would veto the bill if the version that reached his desk included the Senate’s amendment from Monday. Justice had previously asked for a clean bill to increase teachers’ pay, and now that SB 451 appears dead, the House of Delegates has added such a bill to its agenda today.

The NY TimesDana Goldstein commented yesterday on the meaning of this year’s strikes by schoolteachers: “American teachers in the past year have mounted the most sustained educator protest movement in decades. Their relentless string of mass walkouts continues this week in West Virginia, where education unions abruptly called a statewide strike on Monday evening, and in California, which is bracing for a districtwide strike on Thursday.  The movement started with cries for better pay and benefits for educators, and more funding for schools and classrooms. But it has evolved into a protest against the argument that has driven the… education reform agenda… that traditional public schools and the people who work in them are failing, and that they must be challenged by charter schools, private school vouchers, test-driven accountability and other forms of pressure to improve.”

This week West Virginia teachers are on strike to prevent an experiment with privatization—a scheme like the one that has for two decades been undermining the public schools in states like Arizona and California.  West Virginia’s teachers acted to protect their state from the kind of conditions privatization has wrought in Oakland, where teachers will strike tomorrow to stanch the flow of funds out of the public schools and into an ever-expanding charter school sector.

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