Teachers Unions Take Charge in West Virginia

West Virginia’s public schools are not academic standouts. Far from it, in fact. The state’s 8th graders ranked 45th nationwide in reading on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Also, according to the state scorecard, 88 percent of West Virginia’s 116 high schools “do not meet standards” in math. In view of these troubling statistics, the state’s legislators decided to take action.

The proposal, Senate Bill 451, was bold. When it was first approved by the state senate in early February, the bill permitted up to 2,500 education savings accounts (ESAs) for families with an annual income below $150,000, and allowed for the establishment of charter schools. (West Virginia is one of just seven states with no charters.) An early version of the bill would have eliminated seniority as the sole criteria for deciding reductions in force and required annual approval before unions could deduct dues from employee paychecks.

Following pressure from the state teachers union, the bill was gutted in the House. The legislation then morphed, and morphed again. A subsequent version gave teachers an additional 5 percent pay raise on top of the 5 percent bump they received after a strike last year. The amended bill also included a $2,000 bonus for certified math teachers, a $250 tax credit for school supply purchases, and would have pumped another $145 million into the state’s K-12 schools.

But from a reform standpoint, the bill was an anemic version of the original. It provided for the creation of a measly seven charter schools statewide and 1,000 ESAs for students with special needs or those who had been bullied. Yet, even with those modifications, the thought of any competition whatsoever from charter schools and ESA’s trumped money and the other perks for teachers.

So for the second time in a year, the teachers of West Virginia went on strike.

The legislature promptly caved and the bill died. And even if the lawmakers had held firm, West Virginia’s opportunistic governor, Jim Justice—a Republican who became a Democrat for a few years, then switched back to the GOP—did no such dance here; he repeatedly distanced himself from the legislation and promised to veto it if it ever reached his desk.

The union honchos, as always, went to their default position and claimed that their two-day strike was for “the children.” West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee made the Orwellian statement that the teachers “weren’t interested in the pay raise if it was going to hurt their kids.”

“The winners in this, once again, are the children of West Virginia (who) are assured of a great public education for all of them, not just a select few,” Lee said.

What an odd statement! It sounds as though since only a small percentage of Mountain State students would be allowed to avail themselves of school choice options, the bill wasn’t fair. It leads one to believe that Lee would favor a universal choice law, which, of course, would be out of the question.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, reading directly from the union playbook, pointed to “outside wealthy interests” and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who “want to eliminate public schools” as the villains.

What transpired is the latest evidence that teachers unions are all about maintaining power. Period. It’s not that unionized teachers hate children. They don’t. But the kids are an afterthought, their primary aims being job and perks preservation, and killing off any competition whatsoever.

West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael strongly backed the reform bill, stating the obvious that their education system desperately 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.”

“If there’s competition, choice, it raises the level of everyone involved,” Carmichael told the Washington Post.

It has been proven time and again that Carmichael is correct. When competition is introduced, traditional public schools invariably get better. But in West Virginia, a powerful special interest leaned on compliant legislators, who then ruled to maintain the failing status quo, thus perpetuating the big government school monopoly.

As of now, a separate bill, backed by the governor, is advancing through the legislature. It authorizes one part of the original bill: the 5 percent pay raise for teachers. So legislation that was intended to reform education may wind up as nothing more than another pay raise for teachers, which will do absolutely nothing to improve student outcomes. This is, quite simply, an outrage.

In 2012, California State Senate leader Don Perata remarked that the California Teachers Association considers itself “the co-equal fourth branch of government.” He’s correct—it is, and it seems that wannabe West Virginia is well on its way to joining the club.

Photo Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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About Larry Sand

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network—a nonpartisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.