On Tuesday and Wednesday, West Virginia teachers went on strike to protest a bill that would allow charter schools to operate in the state and allocate money toward private school vouchers — and they won.
This is the second time in two years that teachers across the state have gone on strike to achieve their education policy goals. But the strike also has important national implications, revealing traditional public school teachers’ growing concerns about charter school expansion.
There are only six states that have not passed laws authorizing charter schools, and West Virginia is one of them.
The omnibus education bill opposed by West Virginia teachers and school staff went through numerous changes over the course of its consideration. On Monday, state senators approved amendments that would increase the number of charter schools allowed and bring back education savings accounts, which would each come to about $3,200 and could be used for students’ religious education or private school, WV News reported. The bill also included pay raises for teachers — making it clear that the strike wasn’t just about teachers’ own salaries, but aimed to address larger concerns about equity in public education. Only one public school district remained open during the strike on both days.
On Tuesday afternoon, 53 lawmakers, including 12 Republicans, voted to indefinitely table the bill. There was some chance that a lawmaker could revive the bill through a parliamentary motion, according to Delegate Cindy Lavender-Bowe (D) on Wednesday, so teachers decided to stay on strike until the time limit for the motion expired and the bill was officially dead.
Union leaders said parts of the bill were meant to serve as retaliation for their strike last year, including the sections on school choice and the removal of the statewide mandate that teachers with the least experience lose positions automatically when cuts are made to teaching staff.
Last year’s teacher strike, which lasted almost two weeks, was focused on higher salaries and better benefits, as well as concerns over staff vacancies and the state’s insurance provider. Gov. Jim Justice (R) signed a bill to provide teachers and state employees with a 5 percent pay raise, a fivefold increase from the original proposed raise.
Teachers were also concerned about proposed cuts to the state’s Public Employees Insurance Agency health benefits and high premiums. PEIA costs and coverage were frozen through mid-2019 while officials addressed the issue. The governor established a task force intended to fix the health insurance program and in January 2019, the task force made recommendations for improvements that will head to the legislature this year.
But this time around the focus of the strike centered primarily on charter schools and private school vouchers. During the Los Angeles teachers strike in January, charter school accountability was a key issue, along with teacher pay and concerns about over-testing. As part of the deal to end the strike, the union asked the state Board of Education to vote in favor of a resolution calling on the state to cap the number of charter schools in California. Shortly thereafter, the board called on the legislature to impose a moratorium on new charter schools. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) also joined in the effort and said there should be a review of how charters affect traditional public schools’ finances. Newsom said he wants an expert panel and a report on the issue by July 1.
“As Governor Newsom stated in his first budget proposal, rising charter school enrollments in some urban districts are having real impacts on those districts’ ability to provide essential support and services for their students,” Brian Ferguson told the Los Angeles Times in a statement.
Many traditional public school teachers see charter schools and private schools as draining money from struggling traditional public schools. Traditional public school teachers whose schools are co-located with charters have said that space is being taken away from their students to serve charter school students when they are already fighting for resources. Los Angeles traditional public school teachers told ThinkProgress that they were concerned about what they called “a movement to privatize.”
West Virginia teachers share many of the same concerns about lack of accountability. On Tuesday, Mercer County Education Association President, Nicole McCormick told WVNSTV, “The issue is that they take public money, that are not maintained or critically looked at in the same fashion, so educators may not have to have the same educational requirements. Charter Schools may not have to give things like transportation to students.”
Advocates for equity in public education have said that some charters lack proper oversight, mismanage funds, and are responsible for civil rights violations on student discipline. Public schools have also had these kinds of incidents, including school corruption, and have also violated students’ rights, but those concerned about charters point out that some states have poor accountability structures in place for charters and private schools.
In Ohio, for instance, numerous scandals show millions of dollars in improper spending at charter schools. Florida has had its own accountability problems with school choice. More students attend private schools than in any other state using its three private school choice programs, according to Education Week. But there are few accountability measures in place. A 2017 Orlando Sentinel investigation uncovered numerous problems with these schools, such as sending misleading documents about fire or health inspections, with a number of those schools continuing to receive money afterwards.
“Particularly in a climate where I think people feel like public schools are under attack and that teachers are in general not respected to the degree that they deserve, then a model like charter schools that is focused on flexibility is seen [by traditional public school teachers] as a threatening,” said Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation, whose work focuses on educational inequality.
Potter said that although private school vouchers are a “much smaller threat,” traditional public school teachers are concerned they will grow. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has championed a school choice menu that includes private school vouchers.
Potter added that the political discussion of school choice has changed a lot in the past few years, from one where there were assumptions that charter schools could be part of a progressive agenda to one that sees charter schools as more about conservatives exploiting educational inequities.
“There is a real assumption that the most conservative interpretation focusing on charter schools as a way of circumventing teacher unions is going to be the big thrust of the work and that contrasts with what we’ve seen in the past few years, where I think there was more political space for thinking about progressive elements within the charter school movement. Where the public education movement feels under attack — that’s where a lot of the reaction has been coming from.”
Since the early days of the Trump administration when it became clear that Betsy DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist without experience as a school teacher or administrator, would be tapped for education secretary, Democrats have shifted their rhetoric slightly, with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) a staunch advocate for the expansion of charter schools and of school choice, saying in December 2016, “I greet Ms. DeVos’ nomination with a healthy skepticism, and I have serious early concerns.”
West Virginia teachers union officials have said that this is about the wealthy trying to control and benefit from changes to education systems. That fear is understandable given the influence philanthropists have had in Los Angeles. The head of LAUSD is Austin Beutner, a billionaire and former investment banker who didn’t have any experience as an administrator and has ties to billionaire and charter school supporter Eli Broad. Last year, the Los Angeles Times reported on a plan of Beutner’s to divide the school district system into 32 “networks.” The plan worried some school employees because it seemed similar to the portfolio model, which has a heavy focus on school choice. The “portfolio model” is a term that came from comparing a school board to an investment manager.
Potter said that where traditional public schools are underfunded, it makes sense that there would be a “scarcity mentality” in which teachers are rightfully threatened by investments in charters when they don’t see improvements to public schools.
“We’ve seen philanthropy, rightfully so, filling gaps where we have lacked the public investment we need in public education, both district schools and charter schools,” Potter said. “I think part of what we’re seeing now is the fact that it isn’t a substitute for the full public investment we need and I think it should be a call to lawmakers and states to think about what it actually takes to fund adequate education and to consider the ways in which philanthropy is helping to shape or fulfill gaps and question what it means that that is necessary in the first place.”
Potter said in the midst all of this dialogue about charters and lack of funding for public schools, there are opportunities for teachers unions and charter schools to have shared goals. She added that traditional public school teachers would benefit from a return to the discussion of the 1980s charter school vision of Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which, he argued, gave teachers the room to innovate and provided working class students with access to more social mobility.
“In the background from all of these conversations and strikes, it seems so salient that the original idea for charter schools came from a teachers union leader and there is this idea of creating schools where teachers could have more leadership,” Potter said. “It seems like it would not only be really positive for teachers, but also politically savvy for the charter sector to think about ways to build more teacher leadership and teacher unionization into charter schools. Some of the political challenges now are coming from the fact that that part of the charter school vision was largely abandoned.”
Charter schools could certainly benefit from unionization, if a history-making strike is any indication. In December, Chicago-area teachers became the first charter school teachers in the United States to go on strike. They reached a deal that addressed the large class sizes, low pay, and a safe zone for undocumented immigrants who could be at risk for deportation. And there is definitely room for charter school unionization to grow. Only 11 percent of charter schools in the United States are unionized, data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools shows.