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West Virginia educators who sparked national wave of teachers' strikes are back on the picket line

February 19, 2019 - 11:50 am
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(CHARLESTON, W. Va.) -- Nearly a year after they went on strike and inspired educators nationwide to do the same, West Virginia teachers were back on picket lines Tuesday to protest an education bill moving through the state legislature that they see as retaliation for the job action they took last February.

With little warning and a lot of anger, Mountain State teachers went on strike prompting school administrators in 54 of 55 counties to cancel classes for more than 200,000 students.

Representatives of the three largest public school employee unions in West Virginia called for the statewide strike Monday evening in protest of state Senate Bill 451, which seeks to overhaul education.

The state Senate sent the bill back to the House of Delegates Monday with amendments to allow the establishment of charter schools in the state. The bill also provides public money to fund vouchers called "education savings accounts" for parents who home-school their children or send them to private school.

"They made this bill so ugly in the Senate," Fred Albert, president of the West Virginia branch of the American Federal of Teachers, said at a news conference Monday.

Despite the bill including raises for teachers, Albert said educators were "left no other choice" but to go on strike to stop the erosion of public education in the state.

Randi Weingarten, president of the nationwide American Federation of Teachers, posted a message on Twitter Tuesday saying the Republican-dominated West Virginia Senate "is keen to destroy public schools & retaliate against its teachers."

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said the Senate bill was rammed through and sent back to the House of Delegates with little to no input from teachers.

"It appears that they are more interested in listening to the outside interests than they are the educators across West Virginia," Lee said at Monday's news conference at the state capital in Charleston.

“We will work as closely as we can to get a resolution, but at this point, there doesn’t seem to be a resolution," Lee said.

Lee and other teachers' union representatives said it remains a day-to-day decision for how long teachers will be on the picket lines.

State Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson County, said the bill has "great provisions" in it, including additional 5 percent pay hikes on top of 5 percent raises teachers won after striking nine days last year. The bill also creates a $250 tax credit for teachers on the purchase of classroom supplies or other educational materials.

He said the bill's goal is "getting our education system out of the doldrums."

"Why would anyone want to stand in the status quo and stay in the past?" Carmichael said.

Last year's West Virginia teachers' strike, which started on Feb. 22, was followed by strikes in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and most recently Los Angeles and Denver.

West Virginia has no comprehensive collective bargaining statutes, meaning public school budgets are set by state legislatures and not local school boards like in California and Colorado.

In states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky, strikes by teachers are considered illegal and educators risk being fired for participating in them. Because teachers in those states have shown statewide solidarity in their job actions, state government leaders have had little choice but to bargain.

"What's happened in all these places is over the course of the last 10 to 15 years is that people have tried to make good schools and students front and center have gotten demeaned, disparaged, called names, schools have been divested," Weingarten told ABC News in an interview last week. "And so what has happened ... is a sense of possibility that when you join together you can indeed be stronger together, but you have to join together on a mission that the community really adopts."

The West Virginia strike comes ahead of one being planned by Oakland, California, teachers this Thursday.

The Oakland public school teachers' contract expired in July 2017. The union and the Oakland Unified School District began bargaining on a new contract in December 2016, but after 30 negotiating sessions encompassing 200 hours of bargaining, an impasse was declared on May 18, 2018. Both sides agreed to mediation but that failed to break the stalemate.

As part of the negotiations, an arbitrator was assigned to do a fact-finding report. The report showed an 18.7 percent annual turnover rate for teachers in the school district.

To stem the tide of teachers exiting the Oakland Unified School District, which has more than 37,000 students, the union is asking for a 12 percent raise over three years, smaller class sizes and more support staff. The school district has offered a 5 percent raise over three years, retroactive to 2017.

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