EDUCATION

West Virginia Teachers Went On Strike And Won Again

Last year's fight was over compensation. This year's fight was over charter schools.
West Virginia teachers and school personnel demonstrate outside the House of Delegates chamber on Wednesday in Charleston.
West Virginia teachers and school personnel demonstrate outside the House of Delegates chamber on Wednesday in Charleston.

West Virginia teachers said they would return to their schools Thursday after two days out on strike. Their announcement came late Wednesday when a bill pushing charter schools and education savings accounts died in the state legislature.

The teachers successfully beat back a legislative effort that they viewed as a push to privatize public education. The strike came almost exactly a year after a nine-day walkout that helped create a wave of teacher protests around the country.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, one of the three educator unions leading the strike, said in a Facebook video Wednesday night that teachers had accomplished what they set out to do.

“It was clearly a victory for our students, our public schools and for you,” Lee said in his address to members. He added, “It is time to return to work.”

Teachers announced the strike Monday evening after the Senate passed an omnibus education bill that would have reformed public education in significant ways. While the bill included a 5 percent pay raise for teachers and more funding for school counselors, there was plenty in the package that teachers objected to.

Along with creating the state’s first charter schools, the legislation would have established a limited number of education savings accounts, using public money to reimburse families for private school and homeschooling costs. Public school teachers in West Virginia have resisted both concepts for years.

Many viewed the bill as retaliation for their groundbreaking walkout a year earlier, when they drew national headlines by demanding higher pay and lower health care costs. Teachers filled the statehouse to capacity Tuesday, calling on legislators to kill a bill they said would suck money out of the public school system.

By Tuesday afternoon, lawmakers in the House of Delegates voted to table the bill indefinitely, signaling a likely victory for teachers. But once it became clear legislators might reconsider the bill again, union leaders announced teachers would remain off the job Wednesday as well.

West Virginia’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, has called for the legislature to pass a teacher pay raise bill without any strings attached. It’s unclear if and when that may happen. Many of the teachers who took part in the two-day strike said higher pay wasn’t their priority this time around.

“Last year we were fighting for us,” Rebecca Diamond, an elementary school teacher in Huntington, told HuffPost on Tuesday. “Now we’re fighting for our students, to be able to get what they deserve through public education.”

Even though the strike was over, Lee said, the union’s members would be willing to close down schools again this year.

“If the situation warrants it, they’re willing to come out again before the session is over,” he said.

All but one of the state’s 55 counties closed schools on Tuesday and Wednesday. In Putnam County, the one county that opened schools, some teachers still missed work and took to the picket lines.

Kim Aurelio said about 15 teachers and staff members at her school in Putnam County reported to work on Wednesday, while about eight stayed out protesting.

“I’m very hurt,” said Aurelio, a third-grade teacher, that her county school superintendent kept schools open.

Aurelio protested both days. She was met with a few boos and thumbs-down from passersby. Mostly she received cheers, honks and gifts of food and hot drinks, she said. 

This year, even though the strike was shorter, more felt at stake, said Lincoln County language arts teacher Kerry Bates. 

“In West Virginia, our students come first. We become their nurses, their counselors, their moms and dads in some cases, their confidant,” Bates said. “If the pay raise never happens, we know that we’re out and fighting for the right reasons.”

This article has been updated to include additional comments from teachers.

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