National American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten flew into West Virginia on Wednesday and argued against parts of the state Senate’s education bill, which she called “a mockery” and “a sham.”
West Virginia public school workers, including members of the AFT union, have held two statewide strikes in two years. Last year’s strike inspired strikes in other states.
West Virginia lawmakers might pass the new legislation (Senate Bill 1039), over union opposition, as soon as next week. The start of summer has blunted the power of a strike.
The bill includes legalizing charter schools in the state and would ban county superintendents from closing schools in anticipation of a strike, or to help one.
“Everywhere you saw those workforce actions, whether you call them strikes or walkouts or whatever, they were all rooted, everywhere in the country, last year and this year, on the issue of investment for kids,” Weingarten told the state Board of Education on Wednesday.
“But as we have been trying to fight for the investment, there has been a competing argument out there,” she said. “And the argument that’s been out there over the last two decades is playing out in West Virginia right now. And that argument is essentially: The market will solve all problems. The market is the answer. Create competition, create choices, let people profit, and schools will have better outcomes.”
Weingarten argued against this, criticizing the performance of charter schools in Michigan, where U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pushed them.
After her speech, Weingarten told reporters that SB 1039 “is about destabilizing public education, siphoning off money to charters that no one wants here and retaliating against teachers who fought for the investment for their children.” She called the bill “a road toward privatization, just like what happened in Florida, in Michigan, in Arizona.”
She said it feels like Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, “is gonna try to use whatever power he has to do something that defies the will of the people.”
Carmichael pointed out Wednesday that SB 1039 also would provide 5 percent pay raises for school workers and school “wraparound services” to assuage the issues students face in their home lives. He said this comes with “a modicum of school choice and flexibility and options for parents.”
“This opposition to this bill is about union special interests,” he said.
SB 1039 doesn’t cap the number of charter schools that could open in West Virginia.
Senate Bill 1040, which Senate Republicans passed last week to the House of Delegates, would create private-, religious- and home-school vouchers. It also doesn’t include a cap on the number of these vouchers.
Workers provided myriad reasons for last year’s strike.
Among them: stopping cuts to their state-provided health insurance coverage; urging lawmakers to increase salaries; and stopping bills they opposed. One such bill would have allowed county boards of education to downplay the seniority of school employees when they are laid off or transferred to new positions.
Earlier this year, school workers went on strike against Senate Bill 451, which also would have downplayed seniority and legalized charter schools and vouchers. The House killed that bill in February, on the first day of the two-day strike. But, last week, the Senate passed SB 1039, which is similar to SB 451, plus SB 1040, during the special legislative session on education.
House delegates might pass those bills, or parts of them, when they reconvene at 8:30 a.m. Monday.
Responding to Republicans who have pointed out that the AFT runs a charter school, Weingarten said, “The threshold matter of charters is that the people have to want them, teachers and parents have to want them, and, overwhelmingly in this state, they don’t.”