West Virginia teachers unions call strike as Senate brings back charters, ESAs
By Brad McElhinny, WV MetroNews
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia teachers unions called for the second statewide strike in 13 months during an announcement in front of the state Senate on Monday night.
“We are taking action,” said Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, eliciting cheers. “We are given no other choice. As of tomorrow we are calling a statewide strike.”
In anticipation of another work stoppage, school systems began announcing closures for Tuesday. Fifty-four of 55 counties had announced by 10 p.m. they would be closed. Putnam County School Superintendent John Hudson announced to parents in a phone call Monday night Putnam County would be open, the only county in the state.
Just as she did last year, American Federation of Teachers National President Randi Weingarten is scheduled to rally with teachers on the strike’s first day. She’s scheduled to be at an event outside of Capital High School at 9 a.m.
The strike announcement preceded the state Senate voting 18-16 to pass an omnibus education bill that inspired this controversy.
“This is a great day for the citizens of West Virginia, students, taxpayers, parents, teachers,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael said following the vote. “Finally, we have broken the status quo and the state Senate has passed a comprehensive education reform bill. And we heard tonight those who want to defend and cling to the status quo and to the ways of the past.”
West Virginia’s Legislature has debated for weeks the comprehensive education bill, which bundles broad policy changes with a long-promised pay raise.
Despite receiving a hike in salary and personal leave incentives, teachers were concerned about several provisions, with unions announcing strike authorization more than a week ago but holding fire until Monday.
In a series of tweets, Carmichael railed against union leaders:
“After years of ruining our state’s public education system, the teacher union bosses have finally lost their grip on the Legislature and seemingly have lost their grip on reality. … Locking our students out of schools because the teachers union bosses have lost is an embarrassment for our state.”
The Republican-led Senate has advocated for the introduction of charter schools and education savings accounts, which set aside taxpayer dollars for students who are leaving public school for private education. Advocates for those changes claim they will increase choices for students and their families, while teachers unions foresee it strapping already-thin resources in the state’s education system.
The House of Delegates, which also has a Republican majority, made significant changes to the bill last week, scaling back many of its original provisions.
But Monday afternoon, when the Senate got the bill again, leadership introduced one big amendment that would include 1,000 education savings accounts and up to seven charter schools.
It changes a police-in-schools provision to a school safety fund. And it moves a bonus for teachers who use four personal days or less back to $500.
Union leaders said those changes, plus the perception that elected officials have not listened to educators, left no choice but to strike.
“We’re not taking this step lightly. We feel we have no other measure but to send a message,” Albert said.
Last year, thousands of teachers across West Virginia missed nine days of instruction while striking over wages and health insurance costs. That kicked off a series of similar teachers strikes across the country
The Senate amendment being discussed throughout the evening essentially was to write over the version that passed the House of Delegates last week.
State School Superintendent Steve Paine released the following statement after the strike announcement:
“I regret that circumstances have led to the announcement of work stoppages in many counties throughout the state. I am working diligently with all parties to advocate for a prompt resolution. Though this is an uncertain and emotional time, we cannot forget that the best interest of students must be our top priority.
While SB 451 has followed an unusual path, the legislative process is not complete, and I am hopeful that we can collectively work toward a solution that best benefits our students and respects our teachers, service personnel, parents and citizens of West Virginia.
Be assured that our county superintendents are working tirelessly to minimize disruption to students and communicate frequently with parents regarding plans impacting school schedules. Each county will make a decision based on the unique needs of its county, keeping the safety and well-being of students as the sole focus.”
Democrats in the Senate complained they hadn’t had enough time to read and understand the newly-constituted bill before them. Carmichael acknowledged the amendment was unveiled about 10 minutes prior to the floor session.
“Do you think I should vote on something I haven’t had a chance to see or read yet?” asked Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier.
Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, responded, “You have to decide what you want to do in terms of your vote.”
Baldwin then said, “I can’t imagine you think I should vote on something I haven’t read.”
The Republican majority in the Senate cast the big amendment as changes meant to compromise with the House of Delegates.
“Significant concessions have been made,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan. “This bill has many features in it designed to bolster and enhance public education in West Virginia for all the students in West Virginia.
The House of Delegates had been anticipated to take up the bill during its own afternoon floor session, but, when matters continued to spiral in the Senate, delegates adjourned until Tuesday. Some delegates sat in the Senate on Monday evening to watch debate over the bill.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said earlier Monday the leaders of the two houses had continued discussions over several days.
He claimed parts of the bill — like charter schools and education savings accounts — have drawn outsized public attention. “Those are what I’ve described as almost theoretical here in the state. They may, even if adopted, never come to fruition,” Hanshaw said. “Those things can’t be allowed to stand in the way of things that will absolutely happen and absolutely be beneficial.”
He touted aspects of the bill providing an estimated $24 million for guidance counselors, nurses and mental health professionals for schools. “Those are certain to happen if this bill passes,” Hanshaw said.
He also described provisions that would consider the minimal number of students in each county to be 1,400. In other words, counties that have fewer students than that would receive greater funding, as if they have 1,400.
“Those are not theoretical constructs. Those things will happen, and if you are a county school system, that’s a godsend to you,” Hanshaw said.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, expressed frustration over changes the House made to the bill.
“We’ve got to stand strong for what we believe is right,” he said. “If all we’re going to come up here and try to do is be popular and do exactly what we’re told to do, then I’ve got a pretty important day job. They don’t need me. But if you want to do what’s right that’s actually going to move the needle and help our kids, then you have to do what you believe in.”
Advocating strongly for charter schools and education savings accounts, Takubo contended those components would help students across the state.
Of the House, Takubo said, “They did a lot of things to the bill that they basically bent and yielded to the teachers unions, and frankly I think hurts a lot of kids. So hopefully we get some of that back. Essentially what they did was kill the charter school provision of the bill.”
Takubo said charter schools have been prevalent in other states while West Virginia has continued to debate the option. “It is mind-boggling why you would want to hamstring yourself and not give our kids the same opportunities that have been successful,” he said.
He agreed that even if charter schools are approved, there probably wouldn’t be many.
“It is going to take time,” he said. “Even if we had an unlimited number of charter schools the reality is in five years you’re going to be lucky if there were two or three charter schools. However, the opportunity needs to be there.”