In the State Where Teacher Strikes Started, Lawmakers Aim to Prevent More

The West Virginia Senate passed a bill that would not only punish teachers for protesting but also includes a charter school provision they recently fought to defeat. The House could vote on it as early as Monday.
by | June 14, 2019 AT 1:28 PM
Parents and teachers listened in the upper gallery to a public hearing on education legislation in the West Virginia state House of Delegates in February. (AP/John Raby)

SPEED READ:

  • The 2018 West Virginia teacher strike ignited protests around the country.
  • In response, the state Senate approved a bill to punish teachers for striking.
  • The legislation would also allow charter schools.
  • The House could vote on it as early as Monday.
  • Similar legislation failed this year in Arizona and Oklahoma.
 

The West Virginia state Senate approved legislation last week that would make it legal to fire or withhold pay from teachers who strike -- a move critics say is retaliation for two statewide teacher strikes in as many years.

Passed with no Democratic support, the Student Success Act also includes a provision to allow charter schools that was previously defeated by striking teachers and would prevent superintendents from closing schools during strikes. West Virginia schools were shut down for more than a week last year during a nine-day strike, which was the first of many teacher strikes and protests across the country.

"It is a punitive measure by the Republican leadership in the Senate, angry that we've been able to stop their agenda for the last two years," says West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee. "This is their way of getting back at the educators."

Bills that would punish teachers for protesting were also introduced this year in Arizona and Oklahoma -- both places with recent strikes and protests. One proposed fining teachers $5,000; another would have revoked their certification. Neither passed in the most recent legislative sessions.

In West Virginia, the legislation moves to the House, which will reconvene on Monday, June 17.

 

What Is a Strike?

GOP Sen. Patricia Puertas Rucker, the education committee chair who cosponsored the Student Success Act, says it was a response to "work stoppages in the past two years that really are not legal and have caused a lot of hardship to our citizens and hurt our students."

In 1990, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that public employees "have no right to strike in the absence of express legislation or, at the very least, appropriate statutory provisions for collective bargaining, mediation and arbitration."

Lee argues that they weren't technically strikes because "superintendents -- all 55 the first year and 54 out of 55 the second year -- called school off. We had a work action. We let superintendents know they weren’t going to have enough people to man the building, and so they called school off."

Rucker, however, believes teachers should make their voices heard without walking off the job.

"We already have many ways in which they can let us know how they feel," she says. "We have a strong teacher association to advocate for the teachers, and they have paid lobbyists who are there during the legislative session."

"But not going to work when you're scheduled to go to is actually hurting the students," she adds. "The students last year lost almost two weeks of school. It put them behind. The test scores were down last year and, of course, we can't say it was specifically because of the strike, but that certainly did not help."

 

The Return of Charter and 'Voucher' Provisions

Education policy changes previously defeated by teacher strikes are making a comeback in West Virginia.

When teachers went on strike last year, they won 5 percent raises after a nine-day standoff. This year, their strike ended after only two days when the House dropped an omnibus education bill that would have created the state’s first charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, and "education savings accounts" akin to private school vouchers.

The Student Success Act includes the charter provision, and a separate bill that passed last week includes the savings accounts.

The teachers union and other critics say both measures amount to privatization of education.

Still, Lee, the union president, is optimistic that the Student Success Act won't pass the Republican-controlled House or be signed by Republican Gov. Jim Justice.

"The numbers are a little different in the House," he explains, "and we have support from several Republicans who understand the plight of educators."

Graham Vyse | Staff Writer