CHARLESTON — Bills on schedule to pass the state House of Delegates this week would allow faster charter school expansion, promote online charter schools and give parents public money for non-public schooling.
It’s just the second week of the legislative session.
Fresh off their first statewide strike a year earlier, public school workers in 2019 shut down classrooms again to oppose an omnibus education bill that, among many other things, would’ve legalized charter schools and vouchers to provide public money for private- and home-schooling.
The effort staved off vouchers and limited charter schools to no more than three until July 1, 2023. County boards of education also were generally given veto power over charters.
This time, facing a Republican governor paired with Republican supermajorities in both legislative chambers, state public school worker unions are taking a more cautious approach.
“Maybe fight is not the best word, but to support our stand,” said Fred Albert, president of the state branch of the American Federation of Teachers, “and we’ve said this a million times: Elections have consequences. And we’ve always been about trying to elect friends of public education and people who support public education ... [W]e know it’s going to be an uphill battle.”
The coronavirus pandemic poses additional hurdles, starting with restricted access to the Capitol.
“We’re not in the [Capitol] hallways yelling because we can’t,” said Joe White, executive director of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, which mostly represents workers other than teachers, such as cooks and bus drivers. “But that’s not stopping them from emailing their legislators and calling their legislators and texting their legislators.”
“Nobody has called here and said we want to strike about charter schools,” he added.
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said, “Absolutely, we’re doing something.”
“We’re mobilizing our members. Our members are calling and talking to their legislators,” Lee said. “What do you want me to do — call a strike right now, third day of the session?”
Time to stop the bills appeared to be running out three days into the session. Perhaps it ran out in November.
By just Day Two of the session, House Republicans had already advanced charter school and voucher bills from the House Education Committee, which has been the graveyard of previous union-opposed legislation. The House Finance Committee passed the vouchers bill Saturday.
If the full House passes the bills, they head to the Senate, where there has historically been even more support for such legislation. A simple majority can override a gubernatorial veto.
Other factors could be affecting workers’ ability to combat the legislation. Many have borne personal tolls from the pandemic.
“People are dying,” White said. He said he confirmed Thursday five of his union members had died.
“I think people are feeling overwhelmed with the pandemic,” Albert said. “There’s a lot of fear out there for their own health and safety and for their children and classrooms.”
Teachers and others also have waged wearying battles over mandated returns to classrooms.
“I think people are exhausted from the fights over school reopening,” said Jay O’Neal, a teacher at West Side Middle who helped galvanize the 2018 and 2019 strikes.
“We’ve had stuff changed on us on almost a weekly basis,” O’Neal said, “and we’ve had the [state] Department of Education tell us one thing and do another.”
“Teachers are extremely frustrated,” he said. “We feel like we haven’t been listened to this entire year — both by the Department of Education and now the Legislature.”
Lawmakers and state public education agencies held listening forums, where support for so-called school choice was minimal.
A couple years later, O’Neal said, lawmakers seem intent on passing the bills anyway.
Union members also are facing such pressing matters as whether workers must use sick leave days when schools force them to quarantine because of possible COVID-19 contact and whether they’re required to show up for work during inclement weather.
Rather than worrying about vouchers, White said, workers are left to choose whether “to fight over whether I’m going to be penalized if I wreck on the way to work?”
The battles of 2018 and 2019 extended beyond school choice into health insurance cost increases and proposed changes to the seniority rules that protect veteran teachers’ jobs. Workers perhaps perceived those as greater threats than school choice measures, Albert said.
“I think this is a little more abstract, and it’s not as immediate,” O’Neal said, “so I think that has made it harder for people to get engaged on these issues.”