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The Battle Between West Virginia Teachers and Republicans Is About to Get Ugly

The teachers who sparked the “red state revolt” are facing their toughest challenge yet.

by Rex Santus
Jun 18 2019, 6:09pm

West Virginia public school teachers and the state’s Republican legislators are once again on a collision course over charter schools. And things could get ugly.

On Monday, the House of Delegates advanced a sweeping education bill out of committee that would introduce charter schools into the state. The last time the GOP floated the introduction of charter schools in the state, in February, West Virginia teachers mobilized and went on strike, eventually stopping the bill in its tracks.

This time, however, West Virginia teachers are being hit from a few more directions in a fight that’s become about something much larger than pay raises: the future of public education in the state. Earlier this month, state senators passed a proposal that would not only introduce charter schools into the state but also specify that teachers who go on strike are breaking the law.

Although teacher strikes are already technically illegal in West Virginia, teachers get away with strikes because of their sheer numbers and broad public support for their cause. But the Senate’s proposal seeks to undercut such movements before they begin by adding specific measures to punish teachers. Superintendents, who have previously closed schools in the state in solidarity with teachers, would be barred from shutting down schools over strikes. The bill also includes a provision that allows county boards to fire public educators who participate in labor strikes.

The latest House bill, though notably devoid of specific strike-killing language, presents a similar threat, teachers’ unions argue, by again pushing to allow charter schools into the state. And although both bills include teacher raises, unions say the raises are a distraction from the broader attacks on public educators.

As House members discussed their bill in committee Monday, chants of protesting teachers once again filled the statehouse’s halls, occasionally drowning out legislators’ discussion, according to the Associated Press. The House bill could go to floor vote as early as Wednesday.

“Yesterday was just more disappointing than ever,” said Jenny Craig, a special education teacher at Wheeling Middle School and a member of the West Virginia United Caucus, which is comprised of rank-and-file teachers’ union members. “We are worried that we’re not going to have the votes we need to defeat this legislation.”

Craig said that members and leaders of the three unions representing teachers in the state will use every tool they’ve got to kill the bills.

“Even at the cost of not starting school in August,” she said.

Since early 2018, a wave of teacher strikes has erupted throughout the country. The very first one, which started the so-called “red state revolt,” occurred in West Virginia.

“Yesterday was just more disappointing than ever”

Teachers are striking for a variety of reasons, such as years of stagnating pay as well poor benefits and crowded classrooms. But their strikes often extend beyond material gains and reflect broader conflicts in the shifting landscape of public education. The current conflict in West Virginia is about two things: the privatization of public education and teachers’ right to organize.

Public school teachers’ unions are generally in opposition to charter schools, which use public money but operate with little public oversight. Advocates of charter schools say they offer more options for kids in a broken school system, while opponents argue that they aren’t any more beneficial to kids than under-funded public schools.

West Virginia legislators are also considering the introduction of “education savings accounts,” which set aside taxpayer money so some kids can attend private schools. Public school employees say such measures rob their schools of crucial resources. At public town halls in West Virginia, about 88 percent of people at the forums (many of them not even teachers) said they opposed charter schools.

The strength of teachers’ unions, and the life they’ve breathed back into the broader American labor movement, has captured the attention of some very powerful people. Virtually every 2020 Democrat has made labor solidarity a major campaign issue. Sen. Kamala Harris’ first big policy proposal, in fact, was all about teacher pay.

But not all of that attention is good. President Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, recently waded into the debate in West Virginia, publicly backing the introduction of charter schools in the state.

President Trump has also inserted himself in the debate, tweeting that “one size does not fit all” for schools in the state. It’s unclear if Trump was indicating that he supported the bills in West Virginia, though the president has repeatedly voiced his support of “school choice” — a euphemism for charter schools and other uses of public money for private schooling.

Cover: Teachers and school personnel celebrate after the House of Delegates passed a motion to postpone indefinitely a vote on Senate Bill 451 at the West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. during a statewide strike by teachers and school personnel on Tuesday, February 19, 2019.(Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

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