POLITICS

West Virginia Teachers Will Continue Striking For Second Day

They say they don't trust leadership in the state Senate to not revive an education reform bill they oppose.

A West Virginia teachers strike will continue into its second day Wednesday even though the state’s House of Delegates voted to indefinitely delay an education reform bill that teachers had been protesting. 

“We need to stay out an extra day to know this is a dead bill tomorrow,” said Fred Albert, president of the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers at a news conference Tuesday evening. 

Educators announced a walkout Monday evening in protest of a new state Senate bill that introduced education reform measures including charter schools and education savings accounts for use at private schools. Union leaders called the bill “retaliatory,” speculating that legislators were exacting revenge after a historic nine-day walkout last year.

But early Tuesday afternoon, lawmakers in the state House appeared to kill the controversial bill by voting to table it indefinitely. The move drew cheers from teachers in Charleston and across the state, even though the blocked legislation would have raised their pay.

Still, union leaders announced that they would continue to strike through Wednesday, saying they cannot trust that the leadership in the Senate will not revive their efforts. 

The strike comes after a year of teacher walkouts that have roiled the nation from coast to coast ― in part inspired by the West Virginia action last year. This time, though, West Virginia educators say they are protesting entirely different issues.

West Virginia teachers walked out again this week, but this strike didn't last long.
West Virginia teachers walked out again this week, but this strike didn't last long.

The omnibus bill was a grab bag of different measures, some of which teachers liked and others they hated. The stuff they wanted ― a 5 percent pay hike and more funding for school counselors ― was bundled with proposals that would introduce a limited number of charter schools in the state and allow for education savings accounts, which help families use public money to pay for private schools.

Many teachers fear those measures could ultimately siphon money away from the public school system. Greg Cruey, a striking teacher in McDowell County, compared legislators’ tactic to slathering a dog’s medicine with peanut butter: They hoped teachers wanted the increased pay and funding badly enough to swallow charters and savings accounts, as well as a provision that would weaken seniority protections.

“There was a great deal of retaliation in this,” he said of the bill.

Last year’s walkout in West Virginia was largely about stagnant employee pay and rising health care costs. The state had invested poorly in the public education system for years, leading to teacher shortages and some of the lowest salaries in the country. The strike drew national attention and forced the Legislature and governor to implement an across-the-board pay increase and promise to fix the state employee health plan.

This time around, teachers are fighting to keep public funding exclusively in public schools.

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

Rebecca Diamond, an elementary school teacher in Huntington, said the last thing teachers wanted to do was go on strike again a year after their historic walkout. She called the decision “heartbreaking” but necessary.

“Last year we were fighting for us,” said Diamond, whose husband is also a teacher. “Now we’re fighting for our students, to be able to get what they deserve through public education.”

A previous version of the omnibus bill had been accepted by teachers, but on late Monday evening, the state Senate introduced a number of amendments that teachers said pushed the privatization of public schools. The union quickly called for a statewide strike to start the following day, with workers in all 55 counties of the state onboard.

Once the House of Delegates voted to postpone the bill Tuesday, teachers were declaring reluctant victory. They are still concerned that some of the poison-pill measures could be attached to subsequent legislation, even if they are never packaged together in an omnibus bill.

“We’re cautiously optimistic. We don’t trust them,” said Jenny Santilli, a high school Spanish teacher in Bridgeport. 

At the same time, teachers in other parts of the country are getting ready to mount their own actions. In Oakland, California, teachers are expected to start striking on Thursday.

After a year of strife in West Virginia, Democratic state Del. Sean Hornbuckle is hoping that all sides will be able to start embarking on a genuine conversation about the future of public education in the state.

“It was definitely a retaliatory action,” Hornbuckle said of the Republican-driven state Senate bill. “I think the teachers are feeling like they have 53 people in the state who listened to them and did the right thing,” noting the number of delegates who voted to table it.

Several teachers said their nearly two-week strike last year prepared them to mobilize again this week. The grassroots organizing that began in 2018 is still happening, with educators across the state keeping a close eye on Charleston.

“I think that everybody understood this year how it worked,” Cruey said. 

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