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In West Virginia, the Politicians Fail, and the Teachers Rise

The Free Press WV

The rolling hills of West Virginia, where I grew up, are home to some of my fondest memories. But time and time again, I’ve watched them serve as a backdrop to injustice and negligence by those who lead, often at the expense of a vulnerable population.

This time, it’s our schoolchildren.

At $45,622, West Virginia teachers are the 48th lowest earning in the nation, according to the National Education Association. The minimum salary is just over $32,000. After months of tension over issues including salaries and health insurance costs, the state’s public schoolteachers went on strike February 22.

On Friday, our state legislators refused to take action on a bill that would, over time, give West Virginia teachers a proposed 5 percent raise, and so the statewide work stoppage continued for a seventh day, with 250,000 students out from school as a result.

Despite the loss in critical class time, the fight cannot end prematurely.

As students remain at home, and families struggle to find alternative forms of child care, teachers have to trust that West Virginians will do what West Virginians do best; lean on each other.

We’ve seen it happening already. Students turn to classmates to study for Advanced Placement exams. Neighbors offer up their homes as oases while parents are at work. But it will take more than an internal, neighborly effort to realize what the work stoppage is all about: long-term, systematic change.

It’s easy to feel like West Virginia’s teachers are gaining national momentum when the state’s name has appeared in national headlines this week. But the coverage has merely scratched the surface of a complex issue that predates these school closings. It is rooted in a history of West Virginia politicians putting the interests of outsiders looking to make a quick buck off the state’s beautiful land before the needs of the people who live on it.

We’ve seen it in flimsy safety and environmental regulations, which have resulted in the deaths of countless miners, and in the chemical spills that have plagued surrounding populations, leaving citizens without drinking water and living on poisoned land. We’ve seen it in the opioid crisis, too, where powerful drug companies made sure that pills were plenty, but options for treatment continue to be scarce.

And now we see it in education, where teachers, the single most valuable resource available to children in this state, and therefore the most powerful influence in guiding us toward a prosperous future, were presented with a health insurance plan that amounted to a pay cut, all while senators, who receive hefty checks from gas and energy companies, could have funded education needs had they passed a modest tax increase on these companies.

This isn’t the first time West Virginia teachers have demonstrated statewide unity. In 1990, an 11-day work stoppage over similar issues led to better wages, but the increase was temporary.

That’s why when James C. Justice, our Republican governor, announced Tuesday that he had reached an agreement with union leaders and told teachers to go back to work, with nothing more than a good-faith handshake, those on the ground thought better of it.

Despite top-down orders from their union leaders to return to classes, county by county, teachers got together. They met in public spaces and communicated diligently with their neighbors, and on Wednesday night, the teachers of all 55 counties made the decision, collectively, to extend the work stoppage on their own terms.

They kept schools closed on Thursday and Friday, and say they will continue the strike until the Senate passes the proposed raise; 55 counties united, shouting “this time will be different.”

“Over the course of Wednesday, you saw every single county in the state just clawing to get back together, and we did it,” said Kat Devlin, an English teacher at University High School in Morgantown. “This is the prime example of a grass-roots movement. It’s the teachers and the people on the ground making this happen.”

This is about more than livable wages. It’s about haves and have-nots, it’s about workers’ dignity, and it’s going to set the bar for labor organizers everywhere.

The teachers of West Virginia are leading the way with a conviction that should be a national example for challenging inequity.

When they get back into their classrooms, hopefully sooner rather than later, they must talk to their students about how, under intense pressure, and with little more than the support they found in each other, they fought for what was right, and they were heard.
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Lauren Peace (@LaurenMPeace) is a reporter at the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester.

The principal reason for opposition to 451 is fear by union chiefs that public charter schools could outshine performances of non-participating schools to embarrass WV’s entrenched K-12 education establishment.

To attempt to scare the public, there were claims that the underlying motive for opposition to charter schools is the sinister plan to privatize them to permit the rich and powerful to make money off education at the expense of WV’s children.

It is alarming that unions failed to propose comprehensive plans, inclusive of meaningful accountability mechanisms, designed to improve WV’s schools.

Their objective seems to be to protect the status quo instead of being effective partners in improving education for the State’s children.

There are examples in the USA where charter schools resulted in significant K-12 education improvements. Of course some failed.

Why is it irrational to establish a limited few charter schools in WV as demonstration projects to incorporate approaches applied in highly successful charter schools while avoiding mistakes of the schools that failed?

Nothing else has worked in getting WV out of being near the bottom with K-12 education quality—-so why continue with business as usual while expecting better outcomes?

Comment by Unions Failed WV Education  on  02.21.2019

Seeing the president of the WV AFT shaking his raised clinched fist in disrespect for the WV legislature tells it all.

WV’s teacher unions are allowed to function as separate branches of government with veto power over WV’s elected officials and their only role is to get more benefits for their members.

Where is the evidence that unions have done anything recently in any WV school system to help create an educational show piece? Can anyone cite an example?

Furthermore what have unions done to develop innovative plans for moving the State’s k-12 education system forward to pry us off our bottom rung rankings? The answer is—nothing exists. 

Conditions will not change for the better until the day our legislators quit pandering to unions to end k-12 decision-making driven by mob rule and raw emotions.

Comment by Unions Failed WV's Children  on  02.26.2019
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