Worst Virginia

By Larry Sand
February 26, 2019

Legislators in the Mountain State buckle to the teachers union. 

In aggregate, West Virginia’s public schools are not very good. According to the state scorecard, 88 percent of the state’s 116 high schools “do not meet standards” in math. Furthermore, the state’s eighth graders rank 45th nationwide in reading as per the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). With these dismal numbers in mind, the legislators decided that things needed to be shaken up.

Enter SB 451. Admittedly, this sorely needed reform bill was bold. When it was first approved by the State Senate in early February, the bill permitted up to 2,500 educational savings accounts for families with an annual income below $150,000, and allowed for the establishment of charter schools. (West Virginia is one of just 7 states with no charters.) An early version of the bill would have eliminated seniority as the sole criteria for deciding reductions in force and required annual approval before unions could deduct dues from employee paychecks.

Following the prodding of the teachers union, the bill was gutted in the House and then it morphed, and morphed again. A subsequent version gave teachers an additional 5 percent pay raise on top of the 5 percent bump they received after last year’s strike. Not only that, but the later version of the bill also included a $2,000 bonus for certified math teachers, a $250 tax credit for school supply purchases and would have pumped $145 million more into the state’s k-12 schools.

From a reform standpoint, the bill was now a shell of its former self, providing for the creation of just 7 charter schools statewide and 1,000 ESAs for students with special needs or those who had been bullied. Yet, even with those modifications, the thought of any competition from charter schools and ESA’s trumped money and the other perks for teachers. So for the second time in a year, the teachers of West Virginia went on a statewide strike.

The legislature promptly caved and the bill died. And even if the lawmakers had held firm, West Virginia’s Republican Governor, the ironically named Jim Justice, distanced himself from the legislation and subsequently promised to veto it.

The unions, as always, swung into righteous mode and claimed that they had struck for – of course – the children. After the two-day strike, West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee made the Orwellian statement that the teachers “weren’t interested in the pay raise if it was going to hurt their kids.

More tellingly, Lee also stated, “The winners in this, once again, are the children of West Virginia (who) are assured of a great public education for all of them, not just a select few.” This makes it sound as if since only a small portion of the students would be allowed to avail themselves of school choice options, the bill wasn’t fair. As such, maybe Lee would favor a universal choice law?

And then, of course, there’s Randi Weingarten. The American Federation of Teachers President, reading directly from the union playbook, pointed to “outside wealthy interests” and Betsy DeVos who “want to eliminate public schools” as the bogeymen.

What transpired is the latest evidence that teachers unions are all about power. Period. It’s not that unionized teachers hate kids. They don’t. But the kids come in a distant third to their primary aims: 1) preserving their jobs and perks and 2) killing off any competition whatsoever.

However, the reality is that for education to improve, it desperately needs competition. West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who strongly backed the reform bill, stated the obvious when he claimed that their education system needs to be overhauled. He said he believes “creating competition by introducing charter schools and allowing families to use public funds in private schools would force traditional public schools to perform better.” He added, “If there’s competition, choice, it raises the level of everyone involved.”

It has been proven time and again that Carmichael is correct. When competition is introduced, traditional public schools invariably get better. In West Virginia, a powerful special interest leaned on compliant legislators, who then ruled to maintain the failing status quo, thus sustaining the Big Ed Monopoly. As of now, there is a separate bill, advancing through the legislature and backed by the governor, which authorizes one part of the original bill: the 5 percent pay raise for teachers. Considering the poor education that the kids in West Virginia are getting, adding to the across-the-board 5 percent pay hike they received last year is, quite simply, an outrage.

Back in 2012, former California State Senate leader Dom Perata opined that the California Teachers Association considers itself “the co-equal fourth branch of government.” He’s right – it is, and it seems that West Virginia has now officially joined that club.

 *   *   *

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

MORE GREAT ARTICLES