by Félix Pérez
All eyes were on West Virginia for nine tense days late this winter as a walkout brought thousands of educators from every one of the state’s 55 counties to the state Capitol and shuttered schools. The historic collective action, which ended with five percent pay raises for all educators and public employees, earned educators support and plaudits nationwide.
One person who stood by the union members, even as threats of arrests surfaced, was Joe Manchin, the state’s senior US senator and former governor. Manchin, who was out among teachers at the state Capitol in Charleston and met discreetly with educators and state legislative leaders, said during the walkout, “We’ve been through this before. I was here in the ’90s when they went through it and I saw how horrible it was. It’s uncalled for. You’ve got to dedicate yourself to education.”
After a deal was struck, Manchin was one of the first to congratulate educators. “I thank our teachers and school service personnel, who absolutely are to be credited for this milestone – by standing up, standing strong, and keeping our state’s young people at the forefront of this fight. I have always said that our priorities should reflect our values and this compromise illustrates that West Virginia’s children are our priority. This is a solid investment in West Virginia’s education system.”
Manchin finds himself in a close re-election bid against state attorney general Patrick Morrisey in three weeks. Morrisey called the educator walkout an “unlawful action.” He told state agencies and county school boards he was prepared to pursue legal action, including fines and injunctions.
Because of his education record as governor and Morrisey’s threat against educators, Manchin has been endorsed by every major educator group in West Virginia: the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association. In a joint statement, the leaders of the education groups said:
There is a clear choice in this election for public education professionals because Senator Manchin has always supported public education in West Virginia, while Patrick Morrisey threatened to file an injunction to silence public school educators seeking better pay and benefits.
The groups pointed out that Manchin, while governor, increased the pay of teachers and state employees by 3.5 percent, while filling in the annual step increments on the salary schedule and revising the pension plan to allow teachers and service personnel to move from the mandated defined contribution system to the defined benefit system. Defined contribution pension plans, typically in the form of 401(k)s, rise and fall with the markets . Defined benefit plans, on the other hand, deliver a fixed pension amount throughout a beneficiary’s retirement.
Manchin has earned high marks from educators while a member of the U.S. Senate. He earned an ‘A’ on the National Education Association’s Legislative Report Card two of the three congressional sessions he’s been in office; he earned a ‘B’ in the third. Included among his votes was opposing the Trump tax cut plan, which risks more $222 million in state funding for West Virginia public schools over 10 years and more than 256 educator jobs this year alone, according to an NEA analysis.
Among other notable education-related votes was Manchin’s opposition to the nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary.
He said at the time, “We need an education secretary that understands the challenges that students, teachers, and schools in rural areas face. Betsy DeVos has spent her career working to privatize public schools, not investing in and improving them,” he said. Manchin cited DeVos’s support for charter schools and the fact that she hasn’t worked in or attended a public school. “The policies that she supports would divert already very limited public funds to private schools, reduce accountability from those schools, and significantly harm the public school system in a rural state like West Virginia.”
Manchin, along with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, was instrumental this summer in securing nearly $12 million to support Head Start services in Greenbrier, Monroe, Upshur, Ohio, and Marion counties. “Head Start Programs provide the resources for communities to give their students an early childhood education that will support them in the classroom for years to come,” said Manchin. “I will continue to advocate for Head Start funding so that West Virginia’s children and families always have access to the education they deserve.”
The senator’s efforts on behalf of West Virginia’s Head Start students earned him a National Head Start ‘PROMISE’ Award. The award recognizes congressional champions of the program.