In 2018, West Virginia teachers helped set a precedent for other underpaid educators when they launched a historic statewide walkout. Now state Republicans seem determined to set a precedent of their own — by using a special legislative session to advance education-reform bills, in what teachers have criticized as a retaliatory gesture. As of Monday afternoon, the bills are still being amended and the situation is fluid, but members of the West Virginia House of Delegates are considering provisions that would create some education savings accounts and a limited number of charter schools, in addition to creating new penalties for teachers who go on strike. Teachers, meanwhile, are protesting again. (School is not in session, so Monday’s demonstrations are not a walkout.)
“It’s frustrating that we’re spending our summer here, fighting off these things,” educator Jay O’Neal told New York on Monday. “ It just feels like déjà vu, like this is all I’m doing, going to the capitol and fighting these bills.” Education-reform legislation failed to pass the House in February after teachers, including O’Neal, participated in a two-day walkout. But that did not deter senate Republicans. As HuffPost reported on Sunday, the state senate passed similar legislation earlier this June.
The state’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, has previously indicated that he was inclined to veto legislation that approved charter schools. But Justice is deeply unpopular with members of his own party, and is beset by legal trouble too. Coal companies managed by his son, Jay, have had to pay millions in back taxes to the state of Kentucky. The companies still owe money to Floyd County, Kentucky, according to the Lexington Courier-Journal, and in May, the federal government sued his companies for what the Associated Press characterized as “about $4.8 million in mine safety penalties and fines.” State Senator Craig Blair, a prominent advocate for education reform, recently called on Justice to resign. Justice trumpets his friendship with President Trump, who is still popular in the state, but overall, the governor looks uniquely weak. That’s good news for West Virginia Republicans who are dissatisfied with the governor, and who hope to either pressure him into signing some version of education reform into law, or to override possible vetoes.
Republicans who view the state as a testing ground for education reform benefit not just from Justice’s unpopularity but from their own well-funded allies. As Ryan Quinn reported for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, organizations including Americans for Prosperity-West Virginia and the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy have campaigned for reform, including charter schools and education savings accounts; according to Quinn, Cardinal has received funding from EdChoice, a pro-charter school group based in Indianapolis, Indiana, and the State Policy Network, which also campaigns for right-to-work laws that restrict the right to collectively bargain. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also signaled support for education reform in the state.
It’s not clear what effect the state’s spiraling education battles will have on its electoral future. Once a Democratic stronghold, West Virginia politics are now mostly dominated by Republicans — and conservative Republicans, at that. But West Virginia teachers have their own supporters, and have organized for over a year with little respite. The possibility, then, that Republican efforts could backfire seems real. O’Neal said that parents and students staged a teach-in in support of educators. Cecil Roberts, the international president of the United Mine Workers of America, spoke at Monday’s demonstrations, and some school workers from Kentucky and Virginia traveled to West Virginia to rally with their peers.
Carla Okouchi, an educator from Fairfax, Virginia, told New York that she and others drove to West Virginia to “to show our support and solidarity.” “This Red for Ed movement kind of sprung from this area of West Virginia. We’re certainly inspired by all of the work and advocacy that they have been doing,” she said.