On the ninth school day of the statewide West Virginia teacher strike, the state legislature struck a deal to give all teachers a 5 percent raise in hopes of ending the strike.
Update, 3/6, 3:40 pm: Schools across the state will be reopening as early as tomorrow, Gov. Jim Justice announced as he signed the bill granting state employees, including teachers, a 5 percent pay raise. He said he wrote a letter to the state superintendent of schools about working with county superintendents to create flexibility in satisfying the 180-day requirement for school calendars.
“Our children have suffered enough,” Justice said. “We need to return some sense of normalcy to the education process. Families should and will have time for summer vacation.”
Justice made this announcement during a press conference with union leaders and legislators behind him. Justice took the stage to teachers cheering and chanting, “Yes, we did!” The teachers also began singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which is the state’s official song.
Justice stressed the importance of investing in education. “In West Virginia, we’ve proven how to be dead last over and over and over,” he said. “We’ve got to move away from the idea that education is just some necessary evil that needs to be funded.”
Some counties have already announced that schools will reopen on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.
Update, 3/6, 1:30 pm: The state senate and house both unanimously passed the bill that gave state employees, including teachers, a 5 percent pay raise this year. After the senate passed the bill, teachers in the state capitol applauded and chanted, “Back to school!”
“The strike and its strong outcome should be seen as a shot across the bow to every lawmaker who may underestimate the support teachers have, the hard job they do, and their willingness to stand up for what they deserve as they educate the next generation,” said Christine Campbell, the president of AFT-West Virginia, in a statement.
Union officials had made clear that they would continue striking until all school employees were given a 5 percent raise this year. Justice had reached that deal with union officials last week, but on Saturday night, the state senate trimmed the pay raise to 4 percent in its version of the bill. The sticking point was that Justice’s deal would have given school employees a 5 percent raise, and all other public employees a 3 percent raise—but the senate’s proposal would have given an across-the-board 4 percent pay raise to all state employees.
Now, Justice said his team made additional cuts to give all state employees a 5 percent raise.
“All the focus should have always been on fairness and getting the kids back in school,” Justice tweeted.
The West Virginia Education Association’s Facebook page shared a seven-second clip of teachers in the state capitol cheering upon hearing the news that a deal had been reached.
“WE WON!,” the union’s Facebook page read.
The house and senate conference committee agreed to the deal. Legislative leaders have said they want to suspend the rules to have both chambers pass the bill today, so teachers can go back to work tomorrow.
In addition to the pay raise, the other issue raised by teachers was rising health insurance premiums. The insurance agency had agreed to freeze health-care premiums and rates for 16 months while Justice assembles a task force—that includes teachers—to find a more permanent solution. Update: Justice said at the press conference that appointments to this task force would be made by Thursday.
Striking in West Virginia is illegal. Teachers could be punished by being denied pay, suspended, fired, barred from teaching in a public school for a year, charged with a criminal misdemeanor, or even fined or jailed if they do not comply with a court injunction ordering them to return to work. The state’s attorney general had said his office would assist and support any state agency, county board of education, or superintendent as they enforce the law, but so far, there have been no legal consequences for striking teachers.
The next potential statewide walkout could be in Oklahoma. Thousands of teachers there have called for a strike to protest pay raises. Oklahoma teachers are the worst paid in the nation.
Image: Teacher Elisha Lewis holds a sign outside the senate chambers during a rally by striking teachers at the West Virginia capitol on March 5, in Charleston, W.Va. —Tyler Evert/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.