More than a year after West Virginia’s educators helped touch off a wave of nationwide teacher strikes, there’s movement afoot to ban such strikes in the state altogether.
The proposal to prohibit such labor actions added a heavy dose of controversy to an already-contentious bill to allow charter schools to open in the Mountain State. Republican lawmakers who control the legislature have been pushing to allow charter schools in the state—the state Senate passed the Student Success Act on Monday during a special legislative session that includes a provision permitting charters. Legislators are using the state’s relatively poor rankings on educational measures like SAT scores as justification for allowing the publicly financed and independently run schools to begin operating.
Right now, the six other states that don’t permit charters are Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont. This is not the first time West Virginia lawmakers have pushed to allow charters.
Late last week, GOP Rep. Charles Trump threw some additional fuel on the flames by successfully sponsoring an amendment to the charter legislation that would allow county school boards to fire teachers who strike.
“This is designed to help the children by making sure they will be in school when they should be in school,” Trump said.
Teachers’ union in the state have opposed the legislation vigorously for how it treats charters as well as strikes, and some educators have shown up to protest the proposals at the state Capitol. Fred Albert, the president of the American Federation of Teachers’ West Virginia chapter, called Trump’s amendment clear retribution for the 2018 strikes. Meanwhile, Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, told reporters Sunday he’d prefer that the sweeping legislation be broken up into more-digestible pieces.
What else is in the bill? Perhaps ironically, a teacher pay raise. The bill would also provide additional funding for student mental-health services. Democrats, however, say Republicans are ignoring what led teachers in the state to launch a two-day strike in February.
“This is the same script, the same format that was forced down our throats in January of this year,” said Sen. Paul Hardesty, a Democrat.
School choice is all the rage in the West Virginia Senate, which on Monday also passed separate legislation to create education savings accounts. The ESAs are similar to tuition vouchers, except that parents could draw down these publicly funded accounts for a variety of educational services. (More on that in a moment.)
So what practical impact would a new teacher-strike ban have? Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency, a union watchdog site, wrote Monday that “all sides” agree teacher strikes are already illegal in the state, but that this prohibition didn’t stop educators there from striking last year or this year. It’s unclear whether local officials would actually use the new powers the bill could grant, Antonucci argued.
Last year, PolitiFact quoted legal experts in West Virginia who said that while a teacher who strikes does not commit a crime, a teacher does not have the right per se to strike; the fact-checking outfit rated a claim that the strike was “unlawful” as true.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos helped bring national attention to the roiling West Virginia education debate by providing a show of support for the charter school bill last week, as well as separate legislation
West Virginia has an opportunity to improve education for all & put the needs of students first. Looking forward to seeing bold moves to offer robust options like charter schools & ESAs and support great teachers. Let’s get it done @WVGovernor, @SenCarmichaelWV & @SpeakerHanshaw!
— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVosED) May 31, 2019
DeVos might be trying to replicate what happened in Tennessee earlier this year. In April, she visited the Volunteer State to promote school choice and publicly supported a bill to create ESAs. That legislation ultimately made its way to Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, who signed it into law last month, although it attracted a significant amount of controversy along the way.
Photo: Jennifer Hanner, a teacher from Harts, W.Va., center, holds a sign last year during a protest. (John Raby/AP)