West Virginia teachers are deciding this week whether to authorize their unions to lead another massive walkout, a little less than a year after they started a cascade of historic teacher strikes around the country.
The ongoing discontent among the teachers is directly related to last year’s unrest. The Republican-controlled state Senate has agreed to give school employees another raise, but only with some major strings attached. These include the creation of charter schools in the state and a new voucher-like system that would steer public money to private schools.
The education omnibus bill that cleared the chamber by an 18-16 margin on Monday includes a number of conservative proposals that GOP legislators have put forth in the past. But now lawmakers have coupled them with much of what educators fought for last year, and teacher representatives say the legislation would ultimately divert money away from public schools.
“We feel like it’s retaliation for what we did last spring,” said Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, one of the state’s two main teachers unions.
Those unions and the union representing school support staff have asked their local affiliates to hold votes on whether to green-light walkouts or other protests in response to the legislation. Workers are casting ballots by Friday.
Union leaders suspect the vast majority of their members will approve of walking off the job in the event the most controversial measures appear likely to become law. No date for a walkout has been set.
The education package passed in the Senate headed Tuesday to the House, which also has a Republican majority. But House members serve shorter terms ― two years, as opposed to four ― and may be more amenable to pressure from teachers and other school employees in their districts.
It’s likely that the bill that passed the Senate will not survive in the same form. Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, has already said he would veto it if it did.
Even so, Kym Randolph, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Education Association, said they consider the package a serious threat, noting that it only takes a simple majority in each legislative chamber to override a governor’s veto.
Randolph said teachers want to avoid something as drastic as a walkout, but feel “incensed” by the omnibus bill and the way it was fast-tracked through the upper chamber. As reported by The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported, Senate leaders used an arcane procedural maneuver to bypass a review of the legislation by a finance committee once it became obvious there weren’t enough votes for it to clear that panel.
Teachers have “watched the actions of the Senate, and it’s like the matador with the red cape,” she said. The teachers “went back to work and now the Senate has gone this route. It’s kind of disrupting the whole process again.”
The most controversial aspects of the legislative plan would establish a public charter system and create ”education savings accounts.” The latter would grant families around $3,200 a year in public money to put toward a child’s private school costs, tutoring or online education, so long as the child is not a full-time public school student. The number of accounts statewide would be capped at 2,500, to be made eligible on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Like with other charter or voucher proposals, many teachers and their unions in West Virginia worry the plan would siphon much-needed money out of public schools over time. The West Virginia Schools Athletic Coaches Association came out strongly against the bill, arguing that it would lead to “chaos” in sports and prompt transfers.
A report by The Beckley Register-Herald illustrated one of the biggest concerns: that wealthier and more stable families would be best positioned to take advantage of the charters and savings accounts, leaving poor children behind in lower-performing schools. The Gazette-Mail reported that at least seven of 18 senators who advanced the bill had children who did not go to public schools.
The groundbreaking walkout that began late last February was meant to reverse years of lackluster investment in the public school system. Like many other states, West Virginia saw a steep drop in revenue in the wake of the Great Recession, a problem exacerbated by years of tax cuts. That left the state with little money to give to teachers, who went years without meaningful raises. Their higher health care costs meant take-home pay was effectively going down for many.
The state has no collective bargaining for teachers and other school employees; the unions basically function as lobbies, with pay scales set by the state legislature. Last year’s nine-day walkout, which was illegal under state law, forced lawmakers to agree to a five percent raise for public employees, as well as develop a plan to fund the state health insurance plan. The success of the walkout helped spur similar ones in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona.
Albert, of AFT-West Virginia, said the fast-moving education bill made it clear the fight was far from over. He said the legislature should pass a stand-alone bill assuring raises for educators, leaving out the controversial measures that the state Senate added. If not, he said, schools could end up closed again, with teachers flooding the capitol.
“They feel, like I do, that this bill has harmful things in there and it seems like payback,” Albert said. “They’re still inspired to carry on what they did last year.”
Correction: This story originally stated that the raises in the Senate bill were promised during last year’s strike. In fact, those particular raises were promised after the strike, in October.