West Virginia school teachers have called for a statewide strike starting Tuesday—the second strike in as many years–shutting down the state’s schools. The strike call came Monday afternoon after word circulated that Senate Republicans planned to amend the comprehensive education bill to reinsert education savings accounts for students with special needs or students who have been bullied, and expand the proposed number of charter schools from two to seven.
The leaders of the American Federation of Teachers West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association said they felt they had no choice. The union leaders are at odds with Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who they feel has shut them out of the process and attempted to punish them for last year’s strike.
There is a lot in this bill that will benefit public education. That includes, but is not limited to, a pay raise averaging five percent (the second five percent raise in a row); a $2,000 bonus for math teachers, greater flexibility for counties to pay more to teachers in hard-to-fill positions; $24 million for more school counselors, social workers and nurses; a $250 tax credit for school supplies; a $500 end-of-the-year bonus for teachers who miss four days or fewer; more money for 11 smaller counties with declining enrollment; and a provision allowing growth counties to keep more of their local property tax collections.
Last year, teachers walked out—and county superintendents supported them—because they were angry over the proposed tiny pay raise and increased out-of-pocket health insurance costs. Those striking teachers had a lot of public support and the 55 Strong movement forced state leaders to give them an average five percent raise and commit to finding long-term solutions to PEIA.
Those long-term solutions are proving elusive, however. Gov. Jim Justice has committed another $150 million to PEIA to hold down the costs to teachers and public employees.
We are about to find out whether the public is as sympathetic to teachers this year. The dynamic has shifted significantly from last year and it’s hard to imagine the public, or all teachers for that matter, being as supportive of closing down our school system.
Is the mere possibility of a limited amount of school choice a reason for going on strike? Will West Virginians who are getting pay raises less than five percent, if they are getting a raise at all, and struggling to pay their health insurance bills be sympathetic to teachers, especially when they have to find and pay for day care for their children?
It must also be made clear that the strike is illegal. Strikers can play semantics with whether this is a job action or work stoppage or a strike, but this issue was settled during the teacher strike in 1990.
Then-Attorney General Roger Tompkins, in an opinion delivered to then-state School Superintendent Hank Marockie, said that “There is no right to strike against the state. Thus, any strike or concerted work stoppage by public teachers of this state is illegal.”
Additionally, the legislature has not finished work on the bill. The process is ongoing. The bill could change again or it could fail in the House or the Governor could veto it. Teachers will respond that Carmichael and Senate Republicans forced their job action because the bill—which is still being debated—is retaliatory. Since the “retaliation” currently consists of a few charter schools and giving parents of special needs students or students that have been bullied more choice, it’s going to be difficult for teachers to make that point, especially when the public learns of every other benefit in the bill.