Just over a year ago, in late February 2018, school teachers across West Virginia launched the first of a nationwide wave of walkouts and strikes that became #RedforEd. Teachers in every one of West Virginia’s 55 school districts walked out; schools were shut down across the entire state. Teachers were protesting abysmally low salaries and desperately needed services for their students. The West Virginia strike last year yielded a 5 percent raise for school teachers.
Then again on February 19, 2019, West Virginia’s teachers walked out again across 54 of the state’s 55 school districts 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 (ESA) neo-voucher program for 1000 eligible students with special needs. After the debate broke down, the the West Virginia House of Delegates voted to table Senate Bill 451 indefinitely—killing the bill. Governor Jim Justice responded by calling a special session of the legislature to reconsider the omnibus bill after the end of the regular legislative session.
The special session was convened yesterday, May 20. Its purpose is supposedly to consider the omnibus education bill, but members of the legislature have not been able to reach any sort of consensus. It now appears legislators will consider extraneous matters and delay the conversation about education for several weeks. Some people believe the delay is designed to push the discussion past the end of the school year as a strategy to prevent the possibility of another statewide teachers’ strike.
The very same issues from the earlier Senate Bill 451 remain on the table: another raise in salaries for teachers, and the launch of school privatization in the state of West Virginia, a state that was rated A+ by the Network for Public Education because of it has, until now, never diverted public school funding to any kind of private school tuition vouchers and has avoided diverting public dollars to charter schools. Yesterday morning, school teachers across the state protested once again, this time in what they called a walk-in at their schools in the hours before before the school day began.
After the tabling of Senate Bill 451 earlier in the spring, the state launched a series of hearings across the state to hear what citizens, parents, and students identify as the greatest challenges for their schools. The launch of school privatization via charter schools and ESA vouchers did not turn up among the priorities of the people who participated. The report’s executive summary describes the report’s key finding: “It is apparent more needs to be done to address the consequences of poverty and the opioid crisis on West Virginia’s children. Public schools carry much of the burden created by abuse, neglect and household dysfunction. As a result, school staffs need additional resources ranging from increased personnel and mental health services, to support students and faculty….”
West Virginia’s Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature, however, are lured by the promise of an experiment with charter schools and a statewide Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher program. The bill would also include a raise for teachers.
It seems that teachers are willing to put off the raise as the cost of defeating the addition of charters and ESA vouchers. Explaining why teachers planned demonstrations before school yesterday morning, the co-president of the Kanawha County Education Association, Dinah Adkins explains: “We hope to demonstrate to the legislators, to the governor and to the communities that we are still standing up and fighting strong for public education… We must stand strong against charter schools, education savings accounts (ESAs) and any other entity that would drain funds from our students that are already having difficulty getting all the materials and supplies, and even personnel in the schools that we need.”
West Virginia Metro News’ Jake Flatley adds that teachers are willing to put off a raise if they can forestall the legislature’s plans for school privatization: “On Wednesday, education groups called on Gov. Jim Justice to cancel the special session on education altogether, citing what a special session would cost per day and wanting education reform to pick back up in the 2020 regular legislative session.” Teachers are offering a considerable sacrifice by asking the legislature to delay the bill into next year’s session. Despite the 5 percent raise awarded statewide to teachers after the February 2018 strike, when the National Education Association compared 2019 teachers’ salaries across the states, West Virginia’s average teachers salaries ranked 50th—lowest of all the states— at $45,642. Average starting salaries for West Virginia’s teachers, at $33,715, rank 46th.
In a recent column published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the Network for Public Education’s president, Diane Ravitch and executive director, Carol Burris caution West Virginians not to believe the glittering promises from legislators pushing school privatization: “Every dollar that goes to a charter school or an education savings account voucher will be deducted from your local public schools… Across the country, the will of residents is being thwarted by charter schools pushing their way into communities and draining the resources of their community’s public schools. When those charters are placed in rural communities with already underfunded schools the effect is often devastating… It will start out with small charter ‘pilots’ in one selected location or ESAs only for students with learning disabilities. It is always the camel’s nose under the tent… The pilot soon turns into unrestricted charter growth. Decisions by school districts to reject a charter application will be overturned. Public school students will lose art and music programs and counselors as enrollment drops and funding disappears. Can a state like West Virginia, which struggles to fund its public schools, really afford a competing school system that is run by national corporate chains unaccountable to local communities?”