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W.Va. teachers end strike after charter school measure expires

Teachers and school personnel protest inside the West Virginia state capitol in Charleston Wednesday. The teachers went on strike over a bill that would have brought charter schools and private school vouchers to the state.
Teachers and school personnel protest inside the West Virginia state capitol in Charleston Wednesday. The teachers went on strike over a bill that would have brought charter schools and private school vouchers to the state. (Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail/AP)

West Virginia teachers plan to head back to the classroom Thursday after a two-day strike that succeeded in killing a measure to bring charter schools and private school vouchers to the state in the latest showdown between teachers’ unions and charter school backers.

The House of Delegates tabled the bill Tuesday just a few hours after teachers went on strike. But educators remained on strike Wednesday until lawmakers adjourned, marking the official death of the legislation.

“Senate Bill 451 is now dead. It’s gone and will not be resurrected,” American Federation of Teachers West Virginia President Fred Albert said Wednesday evening at the Capitol, referring to the disputed measure.

The fight over the education bill illustrates the continuing hostility between teachers’ unions and those who back charter schools, a conflict that helped push tens of thousands of Los Angeles teachers to strike last month. It is a battle that intensified with the appointment of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose backing for state spending on charter and private schools has raised the ire of teachers’ unions.

The strike affected nearly all of the state’s 275,000 schoolchildren with all but one school system closing. Several school systems had planned to close Wednesday because of inclement weather.

Opposition to the education bill was so fierce that teachers stood against it even though it would have increased their pay and allocated an additional $24 million for student support services. But the original measure also contained provisions that teachers’ unions found unpalatable, including one that would eliminate seniority during layoffs and another that would make union members sign up annually to have dues taken from their paychecks.

‘As long as it takes’: Los Angeles teachers go on strike in nation’s second-largest system

But one of the most disputed provisions would have introduced charter schools in the state, one of the few with none. It would also have established educational savings accounts — a type of voucher — for families of special-needs students and students who have been bullied. Under the program, the state would deposit about three-quarters of the money it spends on individual public-school students into an account for families to use for private schools and other education needs.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R) said he backed the measure because he believes the state’s education system, which ranks low on national standardized test scores, needs to be overhauled. He said he believes creating competition by introducing charter schools and allowing families to use public funds in private schools would force traditional public schools to perform better.

“It’s a moral imperative to address that issue,” Carmichael said in an interview Tuesday. “It goes to the whole aspect, frankly, of capitalism. If there’s competition, choice, it raises the level of everyone involved.”

Hours after West Virginia teachers strike, lawmakers drop measures expanding charter schools and private school vouchers

Education researchers have contested that logic, saying that school systems do not function in the same way that markets do and pointing out that public schools and charter schools operate under different rules. Charter schools are often free to set their own discipline policies and suspend and expel children at higher rates than traditional public schools, according to some research.  

As teachers continued holding vigil at the state Capitol on Wednesday, the House Finance Committee passed a bill being pushed by Gov. Jim Justice (R) that would hike pay for teachers, school personnel and state police by 5 percent. The bill contained none of the provisions that derailed the education legislation.

Union leaders said the bill was retaliation for last year’s teacher walkout, which shut down schools for nine days before teachers won a raise. Carmichael denies that.

Last year’s job action in the GOP-led state stunned the nation, marking the first major teacher protest since Chicago teachers went on a one-day strike in 2016.

The 2018 strike sparked acrimony between lawmakers and school workers, many of whom worked to vote out legislators who did not back their cause.

“The trust is not there,” said Joe White, executive director of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, on Tuesday evening, before announcing Wednesday’s strike.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that charter schools are not required to provide special education services and that they can pick and choose which students to enroll. This article has been updated.

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