CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Teachers in West Virginia walked out of the classroom last year and sparked a national wave of strikes. They walked out this year too. Now they’re being tested again.
But this time, as a summertime special legislative session undercuts the threat of a third strike, it’s not clear whether teachers have the clout to slow a sweeping state Senate GOP education plan that would allow the state’s first charter schools and make future walkouts a fireable offense .
Republicans say the measure is aimed at improving the state’s dismal academic performance, but critics argue the Senate largely resurrected a proposal that launched a two-day strike in February.
“This smells really, really bad, and you can see that this is completely a power play,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “They could not get this done in sunlight, so they are doing everything in their power to hurt the people who have kids’ best interests in mind.”
The Republican-controlled Senate met over the weekend to debate the bill over the chants of dozens of teachers who filled the galleries and the halls of the legislature. Lawmakers passed the bill along party lines Monday.
Teachers unions are now looking toward the House, which is scheduled to meet later this month.
“Our hope is in the House,” said Fred Albert, president of the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. Albert said he’s asking members to contact their delegates before the chamber reconvenes, and his group launched a radio and digital ad campaign against the bill Tuesday.
Gov. Jim Justice told The Associated Press that he thinks lawmakers should steer clear of contentious issues like charter schools. He said before he called the special session, Republican Senate leaders told him that they would be able to easily pass a bill by bringing in all the stakeholders before they reconvened.
“Well I mean, you know it sounded great but at the end of the day it was a hollow promise,” said Justice, a Republican. “And just to tell it like it is, I probably wouldn’t have gone along. I know I wouldn’t have gone along with having a special session if this was what we were going to do, go right back to ground zero.”
Justice called the special session in March and asked lawmakers to go out and meet with teachers, parents and others before they returned. Public forums on education were held statewide, and then the state Department of Education released a report questioning the formation of charter schools.
He met on Sunday with senators of both parties and told reporters he took issue with a provision of the bill that would cancel school sporting events on days when teachers caused a work stoppage. Lawmakers left that part of the bill intact and voted to strengthen anti-strike language in the bill, a move criticized as clear retribution for past walkouts.
Republican Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who sponsored the current bill, has repeatedly pointed at West Virginia’s poor test scores as proof lawmakers need to act on his education proposal. He said the proposal includes ideas that the Democrats also endorse, including pay raises for teachers and mental health services for students.
Carmichael criticized Justice , saying the governor “has not been engaged in this discussion or this effort to move education forward in West Virginia.”
“Leaders lead and they want you to make substantial change, and he just wants to shift blame,” he said of Justice. “I’ll take the blame for trying to move our education system forward.”
Justice maintained that he has consistently been part of the debate.
“I have been more involved and more engaged in every single thing in regards to education than anybody could imagine,” he said.
Teachers launched a two-day walkout in February over a comprehensive education bill that tied a pay raise to the formation of charter schools. The proposal eventually died in the House after educators packed the state Capitol and argued it was retaliation for last year’s nine-day strike over raises and health insurance, which helped inspire similar movements in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, Washington state, and Los Angeles.