The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

West Virginia teachers, whose protests sparked a nationwide movement, prepare to walk out again

Fred Albert, president of West Virginia’s branch of the American Federation of Teachers, raises his fist as he and other union leaders call for a statewide strike during a news conference at the state capitol on Feb. 18. (Craig Hudson/AP)

Almost exactly a year after their walkout inspired a nationwide movement, West Virginia teachers and school workers are set to strike again Tuesday to protest a bill to invest state funds into private school vouchers and charter schools, diverting it away from traditional public schools.

Union representatives announced the strike Monday inside the state house, just as state senators were preparing to vote to amend a funding bill to include the creation of charter schools and private school vouchers. The vouchers, called education savings accounts, would deposit funds in special accounts for parents of eligible special needs children, allowing them to spend the money on educational services of their choice.

“As of tomorrow, we are calling a statewide strike,” said Fred Albert, president of West Virginia’s branch of the American Federation of Teachers. A crowd of supporters cheered loudly. “We’re left no other choice. Our voice has been shut out.”

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On Feb. 22, 2018, West Virginia teachers shocked the nation when they called a statewide walkout to protest lagging salaries and rising health-care costs. School districts across the state were forced to shut down schools for nine days until teachers won a 5 percent raise — but no relief from health-care costs.

Their bold protest set off a wave of teacher walkouts and protests that reached a half-dozen other states by year’s end, including Oklahoma and Arizona, where teachers successfully pressed state lawmakers for a raise. Last month, teachers in Los Angeles, home of the nation’s second-largest school district, went on strike over classroom overcrowding and a dearth of school nurses and counselors. In the wake of the West Virginia protests, hundreds of educators ran for office, including 2016 Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes, now a congresswoman from Connecticut.

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This time, West Virginia teachers say they are frustrated by a proposal to create an education savings account, a kind of private school voucher in which the state deposits money in a special account for eligible recipients to pay for private school. The bill would have also allowed for charter schools to establish in the state. The state Senate wrote the proposals into a funding bill that included raises for teachers and more funding for rural schools. West Virginia’s House of Delegates voted to strip both proposals from the bill.

The Republican-led W.Va. House voted Feb. 19 to shelve a bill that aimed to invest state funds into private school vouchers and charter schools. (Video: AP)

On Monday night, the bill headed back to the state Senate, which voted to again add the amendment. Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R) said last month that he wanted to expand school choice in the state.

“I think it’s a moral imperative for us to instill competition and flexibility and achievement into the school system,” Carmichael said, according to the Herald-Dispatch. “Through public charter schools is one option.”

Teacher unions accused state lawmakers of siding with outside advocates who spoke in favor of charter schools and education savings accounts.