They want to punish us for winning in West Virginia

February 4, 2019

West Virginia teachers and school personnel are threatening a potential statewide strike for the second February in a row after the Republican-dominated legislature pushed ahead with legislation that would advance the right’s school privatization agenda.

Senate Bill 451, also known as the omnibus education bill, is clearly retaliation for last spring’s teachers’ rebellion that inspired a wave of “red state” walkouts. State Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael claims the legislation is good for teachers because it includes the promised 5 percent pay raise for teachers, plus additional funding for the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) — though not enough to meet the demands of teachers to fix the fund that provides health coverage for all state workers.

But the legislation is packed with anti-union, anti-public education provisions such as the legalization of charter schools; a voucher system to give public funds for private school, online education and homeschooling; penalties for teachers who strike; increased class sizes and more. The bill passed in two readings in the state Senate on Thursday and Friday — another vote comes on Monday, and the bill will go to the House of Delegates.

Teachers are furious that the legislature is trying to undermine the gains they won last spring. Teachers in several counties have already taken steps toward a new strike, as they did last year to start the rebellion, and leaders of three unions with members in the schools announced a statewide strike vote to take place next week.

Nicole McCormick, a middle school music teacher in Mercer County in southern West Virginia, was about to leave on Thursday for a protest at the state Capitol building in Charleston when she was reached by Dana Blanchard, who interviewed her about the legislators’ latest attack on public school students, teachers and staff.

WHAT ARE the latest developments in mobilizing against this awful education bill?

I’M GOING to head the capital here in just a bit. We got stuck on the turnpike yesterday and had to turn back, but a bunch of people from Mercer County went up yesterday. I got a call from them last night at 9:30 p.m. saying they were just coming home, but that they’ll be back in Charleston in the morning. They all sat and watched the whole “show” in the legislature, which is really what it is.

West Virginia teachers in front of the state Capitol during their red state revolt
West Virginia teachers in front of the state Capitol during their red state revolt (West Virginia School Service Personnel Association)

I think they’ll continue to push it through today — it really is just a farce. We have a press conference scheduled for 5 p.m. with parents, community organizers, someone from the state school board and the presidents of AFT (American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia), WVEA (West Virginia Education Association) and WVSSPA (West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.)

I KNOW you all have been busy mobilizing teachers and staff, and pulling together meetings in counties across the state. Mingo County just voted to authorize a one-day strike. Is this happening in other places too?

MY HOPE is that all counties get shut down again. People are really angry, and they realize the implications of this bill for the future of public education in West Virginia.

We’re a small poor state. Even if there are very tiny pockets of wealth, they are very tiny pockets and the state as a whole is very impoverished. We can’t sustain two separate systems, one for the wealthy and one for everyone else — which continues to drain money out of public education because of the formula they use to fund schools.

Whenever we lose students, we lose money, but we’re still operating the same amount of buildings, and we need to maintain those buildings: roofs, plumbing, making sure the heat is working, making sure they’re cleaned everyday and the technology is functional. That doesn’t change because you have three less students, even though those three less students means you’ve lost $50,000 in funding.

YES, THIS is where it’s a problem when we try to run public schools like a business.

THAT’S THE thing people are starting to realize.

When we had our meeting in Mercer County, we had about 200 people show up, which is good considering we have about 530 teachers in the whole county. I was there as the president of WVEA in Mercer County, and the president of the local WVSSPA was there, too.

We took a voice vote, and we authorized a paper ballot to walk out as a county. We went down a list of options, starting with making phone calls and sending emails. We took a show of hands and everyone was on board.

We talked about other options like informational pickets and about three-quarters of the room raised their hand. Then we talked about having a roundtable discussion with people who work in the schools and our parent community — to talk about why charter schools are bad for West Virginia, and about half people raised their hand for that idea.

At that point, a woman in the back stood up and said, “We don’t have time for this!” I asked her to explain more. She came to the front and continued: “This is bad. This is retaliation, and our students are the ones who are going to be hurt even more than us. We need to do something right now. We need to take a vote to walk out right now.”

Everybody starting clapping, so I asked them: How many of you think we should take an official vote to walk out? Every single person raised his or her hand. That’s what we all want. Mercer County is ready to go.

I think the unions got the message that we can’t mess around on this bill. Understand that both houses are controlled by Republicans, and even if the governor did veto the bill, it only takes a simply majority to override a veto.

And while they’re pushing this big education bill, we’re also aware that they’re trying to slip in these smaller bills that change rules around teacher certification and open the door to privatizing public services. Because that’s their agenda: to privatize public education.

So we’re trying to pay attention on many fronts. This bill is a monster that no one consulted any of us about. They didn’t ask teachers or our union leadership about it. This has been in the works since last year.

LIKE YOU said, this seems like the bosses and politicians retaliating for your strike last spring. I’m sure the day after it ended, they started trying to figure out how to get back what they just lost. I know it’s been a long fight around the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), and at the hearings around the state, they really didn’t try to fix any of the problems, especially around funding PEIA properly.

THAT’S RIGHT. There’s still no progressive funding sources for PEIA.

And I saw today that they’re trying to reduce the gas severance tax [charged to energy companies that extract natural gas]. It’s just another one of those little bills they’re trying to sneak in under our noses.

We actually want them to increase the severance tax and use that to fund public schools and services. But this latest bill is going to cost $300 million to $400 million in giveaways to the oil industry. That’s hundreds of millions of dollars that could instead go to more classroom aides, increasing wages for public employees or making sure the buildings aren’t falling down around us.

That’s not an exaggeration. In Fayetteville County, the top floor of their high school was actually condemned and deemed unsafe, but they’ve kept the bottom floor open. They had moved the band room out to this separate building on campus, but when there was a snowstorm, the room caved in, and all the instruments were destroyed. Thank goodness no kids were there at the time, and no one was hurt.

This isn’t uncommon. Three years ago, a similar thing happened in Ridgeley, where a storm destroyed a whole school, and they’re still teaching out of pods and haven’t rebuilt — they still don’t have a school. There are all these things we could do with more money for our schools.

TELL US more about teachers’ fight against the expansion of private charter schools.

WHENEVER [REPUBLICAN state Sen.] Carmichael says that 44 other states have charter schools, and they score better than we do on standardized tests, it always makes me think of the statistic that more muggings happen on days when ice cream sales are high.

Those things aren’t really directly connected. It’s because when the weather is nicer, more people are out, and there’s more opportunity for muggings, and also more people are eating ice cream. Even though they look like they correlate, they don’t. Ice cream does not cause muggings.

When they say public schools are failing, my response is: Have you asked any public school workers what we should do about it? No one ever asks us.

Even if we scream it at them, they tell us our opinions don’t count — that they don’t value us as human beings, they don’t value public education, and they truly don’t care about our students. They tell us that we can teach kids more efficiently and reduce costs. I want to ask: How much is my child worth to them? Is this really about efficiency?

IT SEEMS like they’re trying to use this bill to give you the raise you rightly deserve, but then ask you to forget about the moratorium on charter schools you also won last year.

NOBODY WANTS what’s in this bill. They can keep their money. We would gladly say “No thank you” to your 5 percent to make sure charter schools don’t come in.

We all deserve a substantial raise but when Mitch Carmichael says things like “This is an enormous raise,” I have to say: Excuse me, but $2,000 is not a huge raise for teachers who are $10,000 to $15,000 behind teachers in other states around us. That doesn’t make sense.

Furthermore, this isn’t just about us. It’s not just about teachers and school workers, it’s about the other public employees, too.

I think the folks who have been elected can’t understand that we actually care about each other. We actually care about what happens to the people who are our neighbors — even the people we never meet who work in this state. We want them to have a better life.

HAS THERE been support from other public-sector worker beyond just teachers and school employees?

PEOPLE I’VE talked to across all sectors are pretty unanimous in saying that this bill is not what we want — not as teachers or families.

In fact, many people have been really upset that they haven’t talked to anyone in the state workforce about this charter school question. Instead, they brought in testimony from this conservative policy organization called the Cardinal Institute, and they have been pushing this line that West Virginia parents have the right to choose.

We know that parents already have these options: They can homeschool their children, they can send them to private schools, and they can request different schools within their district. It’s not a big deal — it’s not like there are big hoops to jump through to move your child to a new school.

If you think your child would do better at another school, or , maybe you want your child to attend school closer to where you work, there are already many, many choices. There’s no public outcry for charters.

THAT’S THE lie the politicians and privatizers tell us. They tell people that charters are about school choice for families. They say charters are about serving students who are not getting what they need in public schools, but then they pick and choose students, and don’t take all of them in. This lie is what the Los Angeles teachers highlighted in some of their strike demands — asking for a moratorium on charter schools, which the Los Angeles Board of Education asked the California legislature for just this week.

IT SEEMS like for whatever reason, sometimes in West Virginia, we’re about 20 years behind everybody else.

The charter school fight is finally coming here in force. This is at the same time that the opioid crisis is getting worse, the foster care system is completely overburdened and incapable of serving because they don’t have enough staff or funding or anything else they need to do their job.

Every year, as our students’ home lives get worse, they keep on putting in bad legislation that compounds the problems and makes everything that we try to do twice as hard.

I remember the very time I realized that some of our children were barely surviving. I was student teaching, and there was this little girl, way too small for her age and coming to school without clean clothes, and she slept every day in my music class.

I continually tried to engage her, because that’s what you are told to do when you’re student teaching as part of learning how to teach. Eventually, the teacher just told me to let that child sleep — she’s just surviving. I want us to have schools and communities where kids don’t just barely survive.

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