By Brenda Álvarez, this article originally appeared on NEAToday.org.
Photo: Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP
In October, the West Virginia Legislature promised to give educators a pay raise. It failed to deliver on that promise and so a special session was called to hash out the details. As many suspected, strings would be attached.
“Not exactly an earth-shattering revelation,” wrote Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, in an editorial in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, “but even we’re a little shocked at how far West Virginia’s [senate] has gone to punish public school teachers and service personnel for striking two years in a row to defend their livelihoods and the kids they teach.”
On June 3, the state senate narrowly passed an amendment to its Student Succeeds Act (S.B. 1039), which does include some provisions educators support, like providing more social workers, counselors, and nurses. But the bill also comes with a heavy dose of bitter pills: banning teacher strikes, removing local control from county superintendents to close school districts for a strike, canceling extracurricular activities during work stoppages, and docking the pay of teachers and staff who go on strike—or firing them altogether.
Additionally, the bill proposes an unlimited number of charter schools and diverts public dollars toward voucher programs.
“[T]he Student Success Act … [was] never about students at all,” Lee explained. “[T]his late addition is petty and vindictive, and probably what Senate President Mitch Carmichael … wants more than anything, after being embarrassed by the teachers, school service personnel, and their unions two years in a row.”
In 2018, WVEA members statewide went on strike for nine days, which lit the fire for #RedForEd across the U.S. Thirteen months later, they showed their power again with another work stoppage over charter expansion and vouchers.
West Virginians Ignored
The Student Success Act is similar to a previous senate bill (S.B. 451) that died in the house in February 2019. The main discord between the two chambers was over charter schools and vouchers.
Wendy Peters, an elementary school teacher, told MetroNews at the time, “Some folks in leadership are more beholden to these out-of-state interests, who have poured a lot of money into this,” she said. “They let charter school and education savings account (voucher) folks have three hours to answer and ask questions in the (Senate) Finance Committee, and then they gave the teachers, the principals, and the superintendents of the state 70 seconds (each),” referring to a February public hearing.
Peters may still be right.
Charters and vouchers are back in West Virginia and have even captured the attention of U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who tweeted her support for these unproven schemes.
We need to show up. I’m not going to be teaching all that many years more, but I care about the legacy I’m leaving behind for future educators and for the kids in the classrooms.” – John Quesenberry, West Virginia teacher
John Quesenberry, a civics and history teacher of nearly 31 years in Beckley, W.V., has taken note, saying that DeVos’s input only “strengthens our resolve to continue to stand for our kids because we don’t want what she did in Michigan to take a foothold here.”
“When it comes down to it, Betsy DeVos doesn’t have a vote in the legislature,” he says “and that’s what we’re fighting against: people from outside of the classroom and out-of-state special interests telling us (educators) what to do.”
While DeVos may not have a vote, West Virginians do.
Remember in November
This latest attack on educators is “stressful, but it also makes people angry that a handful of politicians can dictate what they want regardless of what the people say,” explains Quesenberry.
The West Virginia Department of Education recently produced a report the captures the public’s thoughts, opinions, concerns, and expectations about public education. Thousands of West Virginians shared their resounding support for increasing teachers’ compensation, more student support services, and addressing the math teacher shortage. Charters and vouchers we’re at the bottom of the priority list.
WVEA members, however, continue to organize and work with their allies. “Bridges have been built and people are working together…it’s empowering,” says Quesenberry, co-president of the Raleigh County Education Association.
Educators are now contacting their representatives and meeting with them face-to-face to push back against the provisions educators see as detrimental. They’re also organizing to show up to the state capitol on June 17, when the house is set to consider the Act.
“We need to show up,” says Quesenberry, “I’m not going to be teaching all that many years more, but I care about the legacy I’m leaving behind for future educators and for the kids in the classrooms.”
Despite the outcome on June 17, the work will continue, as educators have their sights on the November 2020 election.
Linda Pentz of the Monongalia County Education Association commented via Facebook, “It’s heartbreaking to watch leaders make such poor decisions for the children of WV. It is time for WV to take control of who is representing our state.”
Officials at WVEA echo this sentiment. “The issue will not go away as long as the same people remain in place,” says WVEA President Dale Lee.