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School Choice & Charters

Despite Fierce Teacher Opposition, West Virginia House Votes to Allow Charter Schools

By Madeline Will — June 20, 2019 4 min read
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Despite fervent teacher opposition, the West Virginia House of Delegates passed a sweeping education reform bill that, if agreed upon by the state Senate, would allow the state’s first charter schools.

After nine hours of debate on Wednesday, lawmakers in the GOP-controlled chamber narrowly voted on a measure that, among other things, would limit the state to three charter schools until 2023, and then let three more be created every three years after that. (The original version of the bill capped the number of charters to 10.) Local boards of education would authorize the charters.

The bill will now go to the state Senate, which had passed a similar measure earlier this month. The Senate’s version, however, had also established education savings accounts, which allow parents to use public money to educate their children outside of public schools, and had included anti-strike provisions. The Senate also did not cap the number of charter schools.

Teachers clad in red have filled the House’s galleries every day this week in protest. During the Wednesday morning public hearing, for example, a teacher stood in front of the microphone for most of her allotted 60 seconds with her mouth taped shut. The piece of tape had 88 percent written on it—the percentage of West Virginians who are opposed to charter schools and education savings accounts, according to a report from the state education department.

Just before the vote, House Minority Leader Tim Miley, a Democrat, told the legislators they are “at great risk—if we’ve not crossed the point of no return—of doing lasting damage to our state by demoralizing the educators in our state.”

Teachers in West Virginia went on a two-day strike in February to fight against the establishment of charter schools and education savings accounts. Lawmakers tabled the bill at the time, but the governor has since called them back into a special session on education.

“We essentially killed a very similar bill in February, and now it just came back from the dead and got passed in June,” said Jay O’Neal, a West Virginia teacher and activist. “It’s really frustrating.”

Last year, teachers staged a nine-day strike over rising health care costs that resulted in a 5 percent pay raise—and kicked off a wave of activism across the country. A second 5 percent pay raise is included in the omnibus education bill.

“My sense is that [teachers are] angrier [now] than they were after the first strike,” O’Neal said. Teachers feel like lawmakers are shoving the school choice measures “down our throats,” he said.

There’s been talk, he said, of teachers walking out again in August and refusing to start school if these measures pass. But the union leadership hasn’t gotten on board publicly with that plan yet, and O’Neal said that threat has already lost some of its power now that the House version of the bill has passed.

‘Team Trump’ or ‘Team Betsy’?

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has expressed support of the Senate’s version of the bill, irritating Republican Gov. Jim Justice, who has sparred with state Senate leaders and is wary of enacting charter schools and education savings accounts in the state.

Justice has said a good compromise would be to establish two or three pilot charter schools, and he applauded the House’s version of the bill, with no education savings accounts and a limited number of charter schools.

DeVos, who called the state Senate’s president to offer any assistance and tweeted her support, went “way over her skis,” Justice told the Associated Press.

Justice told the AP that DeVos’ tweet came as a shock to him, and also probably President Donald Trump as well, although the president has been supportive of similar measures in other states. Justice said he has talked to Trump about the state’s public schools, and the president said he “totally supports” Justice’s plan. The governor also said DeVos “got her butt bit real good” by Trump after her tweet, according to a local reporter.

Then, earlier this week, Trump tweeted in support of Justice, saying “one size doesn’t fit all.”

Trump’s tweet created some confusion in the state House, with a Democratic delegate telling his Republican colleagues that they now had to choose between “Team Trump” and “Team Betsy.” And the House speaker told reporters that he “wasn’t sure that [he] understood” what Trump meant, according to the Metro News site.

Image: Striking West Virginia teachers and supporters rally outside the House of Delegates chambers Feb. 19 —John Raby/AP-File

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