A wide-reaching education bill in West Virginia has, yet again, pitted the state’s teaching force against its lawmakers—and raised the prospect of another statewide teachers’ strike.
West Virginia state senators on Tuesday passed a controversial omnibus education bill that would boost teacher pay by 5 percent, but also includes provisions fiercely opposed by many teachers, including allowing charter schools and vouchers and a move to curtail the power of the state’s teachers’ union.
The voluminous bill, known as SB 451, has outraged the state’s teachers, who describe it as an effort to privatize education in the state and, despite the pay raise, punish teachers for a nine-day strike they staged last year. They have threatened another strike if the bill passes in its current form.
The 18-16 Senate vote occurred after an impassioned three-hour debate during which more than half the state’s legislators lamented the state’s lagging academic results.
“I know that quality education is the greatest gift we can give our children,” said Senate education committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, a Republican. “This may be the most important thing that we’ve ever done.”
Dozens of teachers, decked in red, jeered from the capitol’s gallery.
“What the Senate did is try to provoke teachers…and it showed their desire for revenge,” said Dale Lee, the president of the West Virginia Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union.
Among the teachers’ many objections, the bill would establish savings accounts for families to use in private schools; increase elementary school class sizes; allow for the expansion of charter schools; and require teachers to annually sign off on union dues, which many fear will result in decreased membership.
The bill also would shift many powers over education to local school boards, including the ability to raise property tax levies.
The state’s House of Delegates has promised to scrap the bill and break it up into several different parts, though a clause in the bill would invalidate all of its provisions if any part of it is taken out, including, most crucially, the pay raise.
Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, said late last week that he would veto the bill if it arrived on his desk in its current form.
He has opposed the creation of charter schools and says teachers should get a raise with no strings attached.
“For crying out loud, we have to concentrate on our public schools,” he said during an animated press conference. “You’re going to take all of the good that we’re putting together and ruin it. When you have the opportunity to give, you ought not give and put a receipt in the box.”
With the collapse of the coal industry, which the state was heavily financially dependent upon, West Virginia has struggled to pay for its school system, and thousands of families have left for jobs in other states, resulting in districts shuttering schools and laying off teachers. Last year’s strike, which inspired a series of strikes in other states, resulted in teachers receiving a 5 percent pay raise, but many teachers said it wasn’t enough to make a dent in the state’s widespread teacher shortage.
SB 451 would cost the state around $137 million to implement, but legislators hope it would spur public accountability at the local level.
The state’s teachers’ union says West Virginia is looking to reduce spending on schools by raising class sizes and making schools more dependent on local property taxes.
Lee said if the state really wanted to improve schools, it would look to hire more support staff, reduce class sizes, and institute more wraparound services for students—“things we know will make a difference.”
When Justice ran for governor as a Democrat in 2016, he expressed the frustration many parents had in the state over its low academic outcomes and promised broad reforms to the state’s school system.
Since his election, he has received full-throated support from the state’s powerful teachers’ union.
West Virginia isn’t the only mostly rural state to consider broad changes to its governance, accountability, and funding structure this year.
Kentucky’s legislators, after replacing its decades-old funding formula and allowing for charter schools last year, are debating this year the powers that its storied school-based decision-making councils have over its schools.
And South Carolina is debating an omnibus bill this year that would raise teacher pay but dramatically limit annual pay raises and force the consolidation of several tiny school districts.