The galleries of the Senate chambers were filled with red and blue shirts on Saturday, in what’s becoming an increasingly normal sight for legislators this year, as they considered another education omnibus bill during the first day of the special session on education.
While the Capitol opened at 9 a.m. Saturday, teachers from across the state began gathering outside the doors about an hour beforehand, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts as they waited to enter the building and remind senators where they stood on issues including charter schools and education savings accounts.
“We’re here again, and I’m sure not for the last time. We’ve been here over and over and over, and still, it’s like [legislators’] ears are closed to what we’re saying,” said Tiffany Hersman, a counselor at Point Pleasant Junior-Senior High School, in Mason County. “I don’t know when they’ll realize we’re not giving up. This is too important of a fight. But until they do, we’ll be here.”
During the regular legislative session earlier this year, the first iteration of an education omnibus bill, Senate Bill 451, died in the House after weeks of back-and-forth between the two chambers. Last Friday, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, introduced a new comprehensive bill, the Student Success Act, which included a number of provisions from the original, pre-amendment version of SB 451.
Perhaps most notably, the original draft of the Student Success Act proposed allowing an unlimited amount of charter schools in the state, and included an anti-strike measure that would stop teachers from being paid during work stoppages — two of some of the most contentious points that arose during regular session.
Unlike SB 451, the Student Success Act does not touch on the education savings account voucher program that was another point of contention during session. Instead, Carmichael introduced an entirely separate bill for vouchers.
Thursday, Carmichael told reporters he intended to pass the Student Success Act in one day — Saturday — by amassing a super majority (all Senate Republicans and at least eight Senate Democrats) to suspend rules requiring a bill be read on three separate days and push the legislation through, however votes from the Democrats were not there on Saturday.
For teachers, this was a good sign.
“We showed up and I think they saw, you know, we’re still serious about this. We haven’t forgotten,” said Adam Culver, who teaches English at Cabell County Alternative School. “I think we all know that it’s going to pass the Senate eventually, soon, but at least they didn’t ram it through in one day. Our hopes now, I think we can all agree, are with the [House of Delegates].”
The House’s special session on education will be June 17, and teachers present at the Capitol on Saturday — remembering how things went during the regular session — were a bit more confident delegates will work with them to get legislation they support.
“They kept an eye out during session, some of the really bad things, some of the things we’re seeing [Carmichael and Senate Republicans] try to get through today, were killed by them,” said Culver. “With [delegates], many of whom were up there in the galleries with us today, it’s not like speaking to a brick wall. You feel, at least a little bit, that you’re being heard.”
Saturday’s special session came after several months of preparation by state legislators. Following the heightened tensions that culminated in a two-day teacher and school personnel strike during the regular session, the state Department of Education hosted listening tours throughout West Virginia to hear what teachers had to say about the state’s education system, something legislators were criticized for not doing before introducing SB 451.
Many teachers at the forums, in addition to sharing thoughts on policy, expressed frustration with the Legislature and the disrespect they felt at their hands. The feedback and conversation points from forums were meant to be used to draft education betterment measures for the special session, but teachers at the Capitol on Saturday felt their concerns and perspectives fell on deaf ears.
“They clearly didn’t listen to us, and they clearly didn’t care. We’ve done everything they’ve asked of us. We did our part, we showed up, we told them what we thought truthfully and honestly, and they, clearly, could not have cared less,” said Theresa Jackson, an English teacher at Huntington Middle School who said she’ll be running for a seat in the House representing District 15 in 2020.
At the Capitol on Saturday, Jackson held a sign that read, “Now taking donations for WV Senate GOP hearing aids [all proceeds go to my underfunded classroom].”
As Hersman was driving to Charleston on Saturday, she said she was thinking about how frustrated she was to be back at the Capitol, fighting against many of the same exact measures and the same exact people she was just a few months ago.
“It’s like a merry-go-round. It never stops, and you’re seeing the same things over and over again,” she said.
That feeling was a common one among teachers Saturday, several of whom were holding signs alluding to past confrontations between educators and lawmakers, and how they will not be backing down.
“It’s disrespectful, not just to teachers this time, but to all of West Virginia, truthfully. They called this special session, and instead of moving the dialogue forward, they’ve entered us back into the same fight we fought — and in some ways won — earlier this year,” Jackson said.
“Now, with our tax dollars, they’re being paid to go over all of it again. They say they’re so concerned with saving money, with making sure the funds the state does have go as far as they can, but then we’re paying for this? It’s ridiculous. Disrespectful and ridiculous, and we’re going to be here, in the gallery, lined up outside the doors, in their offices, as long as we have to. Because this fight is too important — for our kids’ sakes — to give up on.”