West Virginia public school teachers are striking over a new bill that paves the way for charter schools and private school vouchers in a state that relies primarily on public education.
In anticipation of the strike, almost all of the state's 55 public school systems have canceled classes for Tuesday.
The state's House of Delegates and Senate have been going back and forth on different versions of a bill that would overhaul West Virginia's educational system. According to the Charleston Gazette Mail, the education bill raises pay for teachers and increases funding for public schools, but also permits the creation of charter schools in the state, which currently has none.
The bill also funnels public money into a voucher system, called educational savings accounts, that could be used for private and online schooling. The new proposals are unacceptable to the state's teachers unions, which called for the strike to begin Tuesday.
"We are left with no other choice," said Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers' West Virginia chapter, according to The Associated Press.
Democrats in the Senate complained Monday that they didn't have a chance to digest details in amendments to the bill, which local media said were revealed just 10 minutes before the floor session.
"Why are we pushing it through with about 10 minutes of advance notice?" said Democrat Michael Romano, the AP reported. "Here we are with no time to digest it." The Senate then adjourned for an hour to give lawmakers a chance to read the proposals.
In a statement, the president of the state Senate criticized the unions for their decision to strike for the second time in two school years.
"After years of ruining our state's public education system, the teacher union bosses have finally lost their grip on the Legislature and seemingly have lost their grip on reality," Republican Sen. Mitch Carmichael wrote Monday evening. "Locking our students out of schools because the teachers union bosses have lost is an embarrassment for our state."
In 2018, teachers across the state walked out in protest of what they called low teacher pay. The proposed 2 percent pay increase would have done little to offset insurance premium increases and cuts in benefits, teachers said. That strike, which lasted nine days, resulted in a 5 percent raise and inspired similar teacher strikes across the country.
Details of the controversial bill have changed — sometimes dramatically — as it bounces between the two legislative chambers. At one point the Senate version of the bill would have allowed an unlimited number of charter schools. The House bill subsequently limited the number of charter schools to two, and killed the voucher program; the Senate's amended version permitted seven charter schools, and reinstated vouchers for up to 1,000 students who have been bullied or have special needs.
In short, the specifics are in flux. But the state's three teachers unions are watching carefully.
"They have made this bill so ugly in the Senate, and we've been told they have support in the House," Albert told the Gazette Mail. "We feel that we have no other measure but to send the message that we're following this hour by hour."
Republican state Sen. Craig Blair told the AP that the bill includes $66 million to go directly to teachers and school service workers.
"Change is never easy in West Virginia," he said. "This is the right thing to do. At this moment in time, this is exactly the right thing to do to get a better education outcome for our students."
In Oakland, Calif., 3,000 teachers plan to walk off the job Thursday over teacher pay, class size and lack of support staff.
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