In February of 2018, school teachers across the entire state of West Virginia walked out over the conditions in their public schools and their low pay, which has been driving fine teachers out of the profession and away from the state. West Virginia’s public school teachers thereby launched the #RedforEd movement that swept across Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland.
The 2018, West Virginia teachers’ strike ended when Governor Jim Justice and both houses of the state legislature agreed to a 5 percent raise for the state’s teachers, support staff, bus drivers and West Virginia state troopers. Last October, Governor Jim Justice promised West Virginia’s teachers an additional raise, but an omnibus education reform bill that included the raise stalled in February 2019, when West Virginia Republicans in the state senate insisted on combining the raise with the introduction of charter schools into the state for the first time and launching an Education Savings Account neo-voucher program.
After teachers walked out statewide this year—for the second time—to protest the addition of two forms of public school privatization, the state’s House of Delegates tabled the bill indefinitely, killing the bill earlier this spring. A special session to consider education was called, but it was put off for weeks. Some people said that the strategy was to wait until summer, until school was out of session. Then teachers would not be able to create momentum for their demands through a strike.
Now, in June, West Virginia’s legislature has been meeting in special session, and on Monday of this week, the West Virginia Senate once again passed an omnibus education bill which incorporates both Education Savings Accounts and the introduction of charter schools to the state. For the West Virginia Metro News, Brad McElhinny reports: “The state Senate again passed an omnibus education bill, just as it did during the regular legislative session. The vote on Monday was 18-15 with one absence. The votes in the regular session were consistently 18-16. During the regular session, the Senate passed a bill and the House struggled with some of its more controversial provisions before tabling it for good. That led to the current special session… Teachers unions, which went on strike two years in a row in West Virginia, have fought this bill. Teachers turned out at the Capitol in force on Saturday, as consideration of the bill started… Passage of the bill on Monday was preceded by two hours of debate. Most Republicans rose in support, while most Democrats rose with concerns about aspects of the bill….”
In an earlier report, McElhinny explains that the omnibus bill, “includes a variety of proposed changes to the education system, including pay rises, charter schools, increased support personnel for schools, open enrollment, incentives to fill in-demand positions and financial support for small or struggling counties.” McElhinny adds that the Education Savings Account voucher plan was passed in the West Virginia Senate in a standalone bill: “Senators passed a standalone bill that would authorize education savings accounts, a concept that was repeatedly voted down in the House of Delegates during the regular session. The voucher-style program passed the Senate 18-15 with one absence on Monday, roughly the same margin that a broader bill including the provision passed that chamber during the regular session. Education savings accounts set aside taxpayer dollars for students who are leaving public school for private schooling. Democrats, who all voted against the bill, asked question after question of Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker….”
We learned on Tuesday that a poison pill had been added to the Senate’s omnibus bill—to ban strikes by teachers: “Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump says an anti-strike provision was amended into an omnibus education bill…. The amendment also says no county superintendent may close school in anticipation of a strike. And the amendment says that if a strike causes school to be closed then that school can’t participate in extracurricular activities… Democrats in the Senate argued that the provision was retaliatory for the strikes of the past two years.”
A former girls basketball coach, Governor Jim Justice is highly critical of the ban on extracurricular activities: “Of everything, that needs to come off right now… I’m a coach. What are you going to do in the middle of football season if we have a work stoppage and we’re out for 10 days and we can’t practice, and we go back on Thursday? Are you going to play on Friday night?”
It is clear that the West Virginia Senate has not budged an inch since, back in February, it passed a bill including charter schools and a form of vouchers. West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Dave Mistich reminds us that the House, which blocked the original Senate bill will soon be back in session to reconsider what its members rejected just a couple of months ago: “Both the omnibus reform measure and the education savings accounts bill now head to the House of Delegates, which is scheduled to reconvene June 17.”
Thank you, public school teachers of West Virginia for keeping up the pressure. The National Education Association maintains an interactive website comparing teachers’ salaries across the country. The average salary for a schoolteacher in West Virginia is $45,642, 50th among the states.