Striking public school teachers stand Tuesday in front of Woodsdale Elementary School in Wheeling, W.Va., on the first day of a statewide teachers strike. (Scott McCloskey/The Wheeling News Register/AP)
Reporter

This time, it wasn’t about pay.

West Virginia teachers walked off the job across the state Tuesday to protest the privatization of public education and to fight for resources for their own struggling schools.

It was the second time in a year that West Virginia teachers left their classrooms in protest. In 2018, they went on strike for nine days to demand a pay increase, help with high health-care costs and more school funding — and they won a 5 percent pay hike. On Tuesday, union leaders said that, if necessary, they would give up the pay hike as part of their protest. They are fighting legislation that would take public money from resource-starved traditional districts and use it for charter schools and for private and religious school tuition.

“Teachers are willing to forsake their raises for the proposition that public education must be protected and that their voices must be protected,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who went to Charleston, W.Va., for the strike Tuesday. “This was absolutely an effort to defund public education, and teachers fought it.”

Barely four hours into the strike, with hundreds of teachers packed into the statehouse, the Republican-led House of Delegates voted down the state Senate’s version of the omnibus education bill — despite pressure to pass it from conservative and libertarian groups, including some connected to the Koch network funded by billionaire Charles Koch.

It was not clear whether the House vote would put the bill to rest for good, but the episode underscored a growing determination among teachers around the country to fight for their public schools.

“I am DONE being disrespected,” Jessica Maunz Salfia, who teaches at Spring Mills High School in Berkeley County, W.Va., wrote in an open letter (see below) on Monday about why she was going to protest Tuesday.

West Virginia teachers remain at the forefront of a rebellion by educators throughout the country who began striking last year over meat-and-potatoes issues such as pay and health-care costs. But that movement has morphed into something broader: a fight in support of the U.S. public education system that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos once called “a dead end.”

In February 2018, West Virginia teachers started the “Red for Ed” movement in which teachers in mostly Republican-led states went on strike, including in Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and Kentucky. This year started with a major strike by Los Angeles teachers, in a Democratic-led state and in the second-largest system in the country. Though there were financial issues at stake in the strike, the teachers’ rallying cry was over the spread of publicly funded but privately operated charter schools.

Public education advocates say that charter schools and programs that use public funds for private and religious school education divert vital money from struggling school districts and are part of a move to privatize the public education system and bust unions along the way.

In Los Angeles, teachers said they were fighting for “the soul” of public education, and West Virginia teachers said they were doing the same. Meanwhile, Oakland, Calif., teachers are planning to strike on Thursday, and school privatization is part of the reason, teachers there say. Sacramento teachers may strike at some point soon, too. (And teachers at charter schools in Chicago and Los Angeles also went on strike and won pay increases and some other concessions.)

These labor actions are occurring as longtime allies of DeVos, including Koch, are pushing state legislatures to pass “school choice” laws that provide alternatives to traditional public schools. They include the influential Americans for Prosperity-West Virginia, a libertarian/conservative political advocacy group funded by Koch, who is a big supporter of alternatives to traditional public school districts.

Last week, Jason Huffman, director of the West Virginia chapter of Americans for Prosperity, urged the legislature to pass the state Senate measure, and said the group would “continue working” with legislators to get what it wanted. He said in a statement:

“We will not support a version of SB 451 that does not restore vital educational freedom provisions. Divisive and inaccurate rhetoric has not, and will not, deter our belief that every child in West Virginia deserves access to a quality education, regardless of income or zip code. The version of SB 451 passed by the House does not provide educational freedom to each child.

“We look forward to continue working with lawmakers to craft and adopt legislation that will empower our students, families, and educators to innovate and transform lives.”

The political intrigue Tuesday in Charleston capped a weeks-long effort by “school choice” supporters to get the legislature to pass the omnibus education bill with funding for charters as well as “education savings accounts,” which allow the use of public funds for private and religious school tuition. The Senate passed a version with those items and other provisions — including making it easier to fire teachers — that were seen by educators as retaliation for their 2018 strike.

Weingarten said the original Senate version had roots in the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of corporate lobbyists and conservative state legislators that crafts “model legislation” on issues important to members, who then help shepherd it through legislatures. The group, known by the acronym ALEC, describes itself as being dedicated to promoting “limited government, free markets and federalism”; the New York Times has said it acts as a “stealth business lobbyist.”

Along the legislative way were hearings in which teachers came to testify but wound up getting less than two minutes each. Still, opponents of the bill outnumbered supporters so much that Phil Kabler, a political columnist for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, wrote:

The ratio of opponents to supporters on the omnibus education bill was even larger, with many of the proponents representing “astroturf” organizations, including the state chapters of Americans for Prosperity and the State Policy Network, both of which are affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Granted, turnout at public hearings is not a statistically accurate way of determining support or opposition for an issue, and good legislation isn’t necessarily whatever happens to be most popular.

Still, that the Legislature would pursue bills that are so clearly opposed by so many suggests a real tone-deafness or disconnect between members and their constituents.

The Senate had hoped to pass its version of the bill Monday night and have the House do the same thing, but when teachers and their unions learned about the effort, they called the strike and teachers flocked to the statehouse in Charleston. On Tuesday afternoon, the Republican-led House voted down the bill.

That doesn’t mean this fight is over, Weingarten and other teachers said. What it does show, they say, is that teachers who have long felt voiceless have found a way to be heard.

Here is the open letter that Salfia, the Spring Mills High teacher, wrote on Monday about why she is striking and posted on Facebook:

Dear friends, community members, parents, and fellow Berkeley County education employees,

Tomorrow for the second time in my career, I will walk off the job I love. I will leave my classroom and the great work of my life because of the disregard and disrespect of the WV Senate GOP.

I have been a teacher in this county for 15 years -- a good one. I could list the hundreds of success stories from my classroom, my certifications, or the awards I’ve won over the years to prove that I deserve to be heard, that I deserve respect.

But I shouldn’t have to.

I shouldn’t have to give my resume every time the WV Legislature presents some new damaging educational legislation. I shouldn’t have to watch dozens of my colleagues leave for Maryland and Virginia schools every year where they are treated with respect.

There is no doubt our educational system in West Virginia needs strengthening. We need reform. But teachers could tell you what real reform looks like.

We have advocated for smaller class size caps, content specific and specialized training, time to collaborate and plan, later school start times, competitive salaries, mental health professionals in our schools, school nurses for every building, and a dedicated revenue source for PEIA.

Instead of listening to the warriors who have been working on the front lines of a poverty and opioid epidemic, the West Virginia Senate GOP cobbled together a grease trap piece of legislation that was written mostly by OUT OF STATE corporate entities that ignores the requests of highly qualified West Virginia educators.

This bill would allow unregulated charter schools and educational savings accounts to gut our already fragile system.

And to add insult to injury, they said these measures would create “competition” for teachers and students -- that choice would make us all work harder. But here’s the thing, education can’t be run like a business because we aren’t dealing with a “product,” we’re dealing with children. The danger of having a “CEO” instead of a principal or a teacher means the bottom line is not the well-being of our communities or students, but profit margins and success rates.

When you say schools should compete with each other, the implication is that some schools and students should “win” and others should “lose.”

I have made it the work of my life to teach ALL kids.

I, and many other teachers from all over this state, tried to make our concerns heard in Charleston, but we were only given 70 seconds a piece to speak. Out of state corporate lobbyists, folks that MAKE MONEY profiting from the charter school system, were allowed to present to both the Senate and House education committees.

I am DONE being disrespected.

So I will be on strike on tomorrow, and for God only knows how long after that.

I am done holding my breath every January to see what and how the working class citizens of this state will have to fight to just live paycheck to paycheck.

Striking is not fun. No teacher wants to be standing outside in the cold being shouted at and spit at. But it is necessary. Because Mitch Carmichael, Craig Blair, and Patricia Rucker have decided that PAC money and out of state interests are more important than the education of this state’s children. I cannot and will not abide it.

And when this is over, this county needs to take a HARD look at ourselves and who we elect. Elections have consequences and those fools behind this nonsense belong to us. And it is time for them to go. I want to teach in this county and this state. But I can’t keep fighting like hell every January and February to do it. #55Strong [facebook.com] #55United [facebook.com]