Educators, parents, students, and service personnel from Jackson County joined their peers on picket lines across the state Tuesday and Wednesday to rally against a sweeping education bill they believe would harm West Virginia students.
At issue was Senate Bill 451, a massive omnibus education bill that passed the Senate and was tabled in the House of Delegates, prompting an end to the strike by members of the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers – West Virginia, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.
The Jackson County chapters of those organizations released a unified statement Wednesday that fired a volley at Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, a major force behind the bill.
“We should celebrate this huge success. Not only did he lose the bill, he lost it on a procedural vote. We’ve gained support from many Republicans, and don’t want to lose that support. No one trusts Mitch Carmichael ... Our state leaders believe he no longer has support in the house to push anything through. Carmichael doesn’t have the people to make his agenda a reality in the House,” the group said.
Meanwhile, Carmichael maintained his stance that education reform is coming in West Virginia.
“Today’s action by the House of Delegates on comprehensive education reform is a delay, not a defeat. There is a vital need to reform West Virginia’s education system, and I do not believe that any true transformation comes through pay raise alone. Our families deserve competition, choice, and flexibility,” Carmichael said.
“The 18 members of the Senate who relentlessly pursued giving families that option will not stop working toward that goal. Thousands of families across the state had their fundamental right to educational freedom usurped by the will of those who cling so desperately to the status quo and the empty promises by those who pressure them to defend it. I am disappointed, but let me be clear: I am not defeated. In the Senate, ‘tired of being 50th’ isn’t just a clever slogan. It’s a call for action, and we will act,” Carmichael said.
Teachers, service personnel, and others on the picket lines in Ripley and Ravenswood had much to say about the proposed education reform.
“I want to stop Senate Bill 451. It is punitive to our students, it will put them all at risk, and is truly promoting legalized segregation by separating the haves from the have-nots,” Jackson County educator Leslie Haynes said. “I am not willing to take any kind of benefit if you are going to sacrifice my students for it.”
SB 451 would use public dollars to help fund new charter schools and private school tuition, thus taking funding away from public schools, opponents of the bill have said.
Tanya Asleson is president of the American Federation of Teachers – Jackson County. She said charter schools are incompatible with the goal of providing a quality education to all students in West Virginia.
“We want the funding to stay within our public schools. If we allow charter schools, that takes money from public education. Our students are the ones who will suffer for that,” she said. “Nobody ever wants to go on strike. That is always our last resort. However, when the work action was called, it was nice to know that our vote percentage across the state was very high. It makes me very proud to be a West Virginia teacher and to know that a very high percentage of people across the state working in this field were all supportive of each other.”
According to the National Education Association (NEA), charter schools are privately managed, taxpayer-funded schools exempted from some rules applicable to all other taxpayer-funded schools. Charter schools tend to hire younger and less-experienced teachers and typically have appointed, rather than elected, school boards. The main argument initially offered for creating charter schools focused on a desire to create greater flexibility for innovation within public education.
“This is not about parent choice. This is about a few people making a whole lot of money and taking away from kids we are obligated to create a fair and equal education for,” Haynes said. “We need more resources to help our kids, not fewer.”
According to the NEA, students enroll in charter schools by applying for admission. In cases where more students apply than the school can accommodate, a lottery is held to determine admission. Some charter schools employ selective outreach and recruitment practices. These appear to have contributed to under-representation of students with disabilities, especially those with more severe disabilities, and English language learners in the charter sector.
“When we funnel money other places, other than public ed, we’re taking away from the kids who don’t have anything,” Haynes said. “We have so many kids who are victims of the opioid crisis, and instead of focusing on mental health support and resources for these kids, we’re focusing on what we think are learning environments for students who are elite and do not necessarily need those types of environments. Charter schools are ran by a board of directors and their children get priority placement. That is not right, essentially your funneling public money for special interest.”
Charter schools are taxpayer-funded but privately managed, according to the NEA.
“I am very pleased and honored to pay my taxes for public schools, even if I were not a teacher,” Haynes added. “We educate everybody regardless of need, regardless of struggles, or challenges. We go to Wal-Mart to buy clothes for them if they come in with clothes that are dirty or they are in their pajamas. We have clothes closets, we feed them, council them, we are there for them, and would literally take a bullet for them, but this bill is there to sink those kids who are struggling.”
During the two-day work stoppage, the decision to open or close schools during the strike was placed in the hands of each county’s board of education and superintendent. Schools were closed in 54 of the 55 West Virginia counties. Classes resumed on Thursday.
Putnam County was the only county to remain open during the strike. Jackson County’s superintendent Blaine Hess made the decision to close schools and even stopped by the picket lines. The Jackson County Board of Education, like many others across the state, approved a resolution opposing SB451.
Jackson County Education Association president Adena Barnette said she was proud that county officials took a stance against the legislation.
“I am very thankful to live in Jackson County, not only do we have an amazing superintendent and school board who supports us, but we also have amazing parents in this community who understand charter schools will devastate our public schools,” Barnette said. “We are standing here so we can provide the same great education to our kids and grandkids that we received growing up in Jackson County public schools.”