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West Virginia teachers are back on strike after sparking protests nationwide

Posted: 10:52 AM, Feb 19, 2019
Updated: 2019-02-19 13:52:21-05

Less than a year after launching teachers' walkouts across the country, West Virginia teachers are back on strike.

This time, they're not demanding a raise or better health insurance. They're fighting an education bill that would introduce charter schools to the state and allow some public money to go to private school tuition.

"This is not about a pay raise anymore," Anna Mattern, a second-grade teacher from Morgantown, wrote on Instagram. "This is about fighting to keep these students in our schools. This is about providing the best to our students. This is about showing our students how much we love and care for them."

After the state Senate passed an updated version of the bill late Monday, a state teachers' union announced the strike would start Tuesday.

"We're left no other choice. Our voice has been shut out," said Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers' West Virginia chapter.

Fifty-four of the state's 55 counties closed their schools Tuesday, with only those in Putnam County remaining open, according to the state Department of Education website.

Brent Griffith, a middle school language arts teacher in Boone County, posted a photo of dozens of teachers outside the Senate chamber in the state Capitol in Charleston. The teachers were told around midmorning Tuesday that the building was at capacity, he tweeted. Mingo County science teacher Justin Carter posted video of teachers in the Capitol singing the 1984 Twisted Sister hit, "We're Not Gonna Take It."

"Thousands of public employees are standing together in unity today for our kids and the future of our state! I'm so proud to be a West Virginia educator today!" Carter wrote.

It's the second time in 11 months that West Virginia teachers have gone on strike. In March, after their nine-day strike, Gov. Jim Justice agreed to a 5% raise for teachers and a commitment to fixing the teachers' troubled insurance program.

Now, Senate Bill 451 -- dubbed the omnibus education bill -- is getting closer to reaching the governor's desk.

Critics say the lengthy, sweeping bill combines raises with things teachers don't want -- for example, putting public dollars toward charter or private school education at a time when public schools need more money.

If SB 451 passes, West Virginia could get public charter schools for the first time.

It would also create an education savings account program, which would allow households making less than $150,000 a year to apply for public funds to help pay for private school tuition, tutoring, online learning programs or other educational costs.

The bill passed the Senate earlier this month and went to the House of Delegates, which made some changes. SB 451 then went back to the Senate, which made an amendment before passing the bill Monday night.

If the House approves the latest version, it'll head to the governor's desk, where the bill could become law.

Union leaders and teachers say none of the lawmakers pushing for the bill consulted with them before drafting such a sweeping bill.

And some say the West Virginia bill -- just like new ones in Oklahoma and Arizona -- are aimed at retaliating against teachers who scored victories with their 2018 protests.

In Tuesday comments to reporters, Albert, the union president, praised the House for hearing out teachers but complained that while teachers were each given just over a minute to address their concerns, "they let the outsiders from the (educational savings accounts) and the charter schools speak unlimited hours before the committee."

Republican state Sen. Patricia Rucker, a sponsor for SB 451, said teachers will get their raises no matter what happens to the bill.

"First and foremost, the additional 5-percent raise for teachers and school service personnel has been promised and will be delivered, regardless of what we are able to do at this time to reform our state's education system," Rucker wrote to CNN.

As for public charter schools and education savings accounts, Rucker said both would give families more choices in education.

"To say that simply wanting more options for children throughout the state of West Virginia is retaliatory is misinformed, at best," she said. "There is no retaliation involved in wanting every student in West Virginia to have the best possible chance to succeed based on his or her own needs."

Union leaders said it's not clear how long West Virginia teachers will remain on strike and they are assessing the situation hour by hour.

"Our members have told us loud and clear we are not going back until we know that broken promises before are not broken now," Albert said. "We came out for a reason and those reasons -- if they're resolved -- those reasons will be why we go back."