2019 West Virginia Teacher Strike Explained

UPDATE: The bill has been tabled indefinitely.

Disclaimer: I’m not a political analyst. I’m not even a civics teacher. This is my understanding of the events as they are at 5:55AM on 2/19/2019. These opinions are mine and mine alone. They do not represent my district. I have done my best to stick to the facts here, but if there are any inaccuracies please leave comment and I will try to address them.

Last night a coalition made up of Teacher and Service Unions called for a state-wide work stoppage because of Senate Bill 451. The issue is really complex, but I’m going to do the best I can to explain what has happened, and do it from a teacher’s perspective. I’ll do it in the form of a FAQ so that you can find the issue that’s of the most interest to you:

What is Senate Bill 451?:

The original senate bill was a mean spirited piece of legislation rammed through the Senate using archaic rules meant to stifle the democratic process. The bill would create charter schools (privatized schools paid for using public money with virtually no oversight) and ESA accounts (tax breaks for the wealthy who already send their kids to private schools). The original bill would’ve also busted unions through “paycheck protection” (a measure that would require union members to renew their paycheck deductions every year, which would inevitably hurt union membership, a classic union busting strategy). The bill would also do away with the tenure system.

Why is tenure so important? Aren’t there bad teachers who are just floating by because they can’t get fired?:

Tenure and seniority allow teachers to stand up to administrators without fear of retribution. Seniority means that I can advocate for my kids and have difficult conversations with administrators. I am subordinate to my administrator, but I can’t be fired like most employees. If there is mismanagement in a school system, the classroom teacher needs to be able to speak up, at a public meeting of their Board of Education if needed.

The idea that there is a glut of bad teachers who are coasting by on tenure is a myth. Have we all had a bad teacher? Sure. But the career bad teacher is the exception, at least in my experience. By and large, if you’re a “bad” teacher, the kids know it and become unmanageable. People who aren’t skilled at working with children, in general, don’t make it in the long term.

Furthermore, schools are always under budget constraints, and senior teachers make more money than new ones. Turning teachers into at-will employees would incentivize the school system to fire their most senior teachers in favor of cheaper, new teachers.

Is tenure a perfect system? Absolutely not. Are there abuses? Yes. Is there a better system for insuring classroom stability and the ability for teachers to confront administration on behalf of their students? Not yet.

Didn’t You Guys Get a Pay Increase Last Year? Doesn’t this new bill have another pay raise? Why can’t you just take your money and shut up?

The pay raise issue is a complex one. We did get a 5 percent pay increase during last year’s work stoppage. We were also due to get another 5 percent pay increase in SB 451. But during last year’s work stoppage, the legislature played nasty games, like offering a 5 percent pay raise to teachers and then a three percent raise to everyone else. The legislature expected teachers to take that deal so that they could say we were greedy, and they were surprised when we held out for 5 percent for everyone. The senate did some similar things with our pay raise this year.

In short, the senate asked us to sell out our students for an additional 5% and we said no. 

We can’t take the 5% and shut up because the other measures would be too damaging to public education as a whole.

But I heard that there was a bill that had union support, what happened to that?

That bill was the house version of this education bill. That was a good bill. It limited charter schools, increased school funding for WV’s smallest schools, and provided a resource officer to every building. It also provided the five percent pay raise to teachers. That bill would’ve increased the general level of funding for education without insidious measures designed to take away the political voice of teachers to stand up for their students. That was a bill that I personally supported.

Then the house bill went back to the senate, and the senate amended the bill. The senate amendment added back the language about charter schools, ESA’s, and seniority/tenure. It happened late yesterday evening, which was no doubt an effort to hinder the unions. Because the senate amendment adds back the precise measures that every education organization in the state refused to endorse, the unions were left with no choice but to strike. The bill won’t pass the house with the Senate amendment and then education reform of any kind will be dead. The senate didn’t get their way, so they decided to kill a good bill with a poison pill.

What’s Going on with PEIA?

PEIA (Public Employee Insurance Agency) is our health insurance. It’s also managed by the state and has been a political football as of late. PEIA is chronically under funded by our state government, and that’s lead to increasing expenses for PEIA members. I know, I know, everyone’s health insurance is expensive, and that’s true. But most people with graduate degrees make more than $38,000 a year (which isn’t even the state minimum for a Graduate degree). PEIA is death by a thousand cuts. The coverage is expensive up front, and then every doctor visit is a game of Russian Roulette. PEIA routinely denies coverage that is recommended by a doctor. Any medication that is classified by them as a “maintenance drug” to be taken everyday, must be purchased as a 90 day supply regardless of how many pills are actually needed. In the Eastern and Northern panhandles, doctors just across state lines are not covered, which forces some in the Eastern panhandle to drive as far as Morgantown to see a specialist. Every visit costs just a little bit more than it should, to the point where I have to seriously weigh and consider a visit to the doctor, even if I’m deathly ill. And just forget about the emergency room, physical therapy, occupational therapy, or preventative care.

Last year, the Governor and the Legislature promised to find a long term funding source for PEIA. They instead slapped a band-aid on the problem through a cash infusion that fixed the issue for one year and kicked the can down the road. Functionally, apart from the 5% pay raise, last year’s strike ultimately changed nothing. 

Why are Teacher’s Unions against charter schools/school choice?

Charter schools are private schools that receive public funds. The easiest way I can explain it is this- I’m against charter schools because, even if they are run by a non-profit, charter schools make money.

Making money means charter schools spend less than 100% of their revenue on educating students. 

Public schools spend every red cent of their revenues educating students.

Now I can hear the counter arguments, “most of public education’s budget goes to salaries.” That’s simultaneously true and unfair. Teachers are specialists requiring a high burden of education and certification. I have as much time in college as a pharmacist. But I don’t want to be a pharmacist. I want to work with young people. I’m just fine with my salary the way it is. I don’t need to make what a pharmacist makes, but please don’t begrudge me my salary because somehow our society has expected teachers to work for “the love of the job.” I have a family to provide for, just like you.

But charter schools lack oversight, and are breeding grounds for corruption and abuse. It’s happened in other, more prepared states than West Virginia. When one Senator was asked if charter school teachers would be required to have a degree, or even a high school diploma, the senator responded that no certification would be required by the legislation. That’s not a place I’d want to send any of my kids.

This strike is hurting student learning, cut it out!

That’s true, an absolutely valid point. My daughter is in the 5th grade, and if this work-stoppage is a lengthy one, her learning will be hurt. But that hurt will be localized to this year. If these measures get passed into law, then her learning will be hurt until she graduates high school. The removal of seniority protection means that she will have fewer experienced teachers. Charter schools will reduce funding available for public schools. ESA accounts will do the same. Poor health insurance means West Virginia schools, especially those on the border with Maryland and Virginia, won’t be able to recruit qualified teachers. The changes in SB 451, and the changes currently being considered as amended to the house bill, would damage the futures of our students for decades. If this bill fails, even if it means I don’t get my 5% pay increase, fighting this bill was the right thing to do. 



3 thoughts on “2019 West Virginia Teacher Strike Explained

  1. While I mostly agree with your overall point, I do take issue with your implication that charter schools as corrupt breeding grounds for uneducated teachers. You point out that teacher seniority in public schools has both good and bad sides yet cover charter schools with a blanket label of ineptness. If a charter school does have poor teachers and corrupt administrators then the fact that you would have the choice to not send any of your kids there, as you mentioned, then that school probably wouldn’t stay open very long. Tilting your article to only show the side you support in a positive light is unfair and not what I think you intended. Jmo

    1. Dan, it’s not at all what I intended. There are good charter schools, and looking back on it, I did provide blanket generalisations here. I don’t think charter schools are positive in cash strapped West Virginia because they pull money away from public education and funnel it into a private enterprise. I was also disturbed at the lack of explicit oversight of the charter schools present in the bill, and I was disturbed that Senater Rucker seemed to be poised to profit directly from the implementation of charters and the Senate removed language that would prohibit legislators from profiting from a charter school. But I agree here that my argument needed more specificity. Thanks for recognizing that there was no malice in it.

  2. It’s interesting to mean that you say at beginning that you are sticking to facts. But then the first description you used opinion, emotional verbiage such as “mean spirited” and “rammed”. Those are opinions.

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