Teachers Protest New West Virginia Education Bill

(CN) – Teachers by the hundreds filled the halls of the West Virginia state capitol on Saturday to express their outrage against the Senate leader and his bill, the Student Success Act.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who called for the special legislative session, hoped to pass the bill in one day. The teachers say the bill is just a rehashing of the bill they struck against in February of this year.

The new bill calls for an unlimited amount of charter schools, far greater than the eight charter schools the earlier bill would have allowed. The bill also calls for block grants and increased pay for teachers in high demand fields.

West Virginia teachers gathered at Capital High School in Charleston on Feb. 19, 2019, to protest the Omnibus Bill that is moving through the Legislature. (Kenny Kemp/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

Another heated issue back in February was funding for educational savings accounts. The ESAs are public funds that would be given to households earning less than $150,000 a year for assistance paying off private school and other alternative educational arrangements. Carmichael promised to introduce a separate bill including ESAs.

“Carmichael and his ilk aren’t listening to West Virginians that have overwhelmingly, 88%, spoken out against charter schools and ESAs,” said Nicole McCormick, a teacher from Bluefield Middle School in Bluefield, West Virginia and the Montgomery County Education Association president. “So, my question is: who are they listening to? Certainly not Wet Virginians, absolutely not the experts, West Virginia educators. So I have to believe that they are listening to ALEC, Betsy DeVos, and their corporate donors.”

Cries of “Charter schools, no! Public schools, yes!” echoed off the marble walls and floors of the state capitol rotunda, echoing the sentiments of hundreds of teachers like McCormick. The teachers who organized the protest also organized carpools to get to Charleston from far flung places all over the state.

Brendan Muckian-Bates, an English teacher at Weir High School, in Weirton, West Virginia, drove more than three hours to the protest.

“I came with a group from the Northern Panhandle today because I believe that the only way that we will continue to lead the charge for protecting workers’ rights blocking harmful legislation is if workers mobilize,” Bates said. “Today’s protest was a strong show of force that proves once again that, no matter what bill Mitch and his cronies try to push through, the education workers of West Virginia will show up to stop it.”

Jay O’Neal, a teacher at Charleston’s Stonewall Jackson Middle School, a member of the Kanawha County Democratic Socialists of America, and one of the organizers of the teacher’s strike in 2018, said he’s frustrated with the new bill.

“[It] fails to take action on many of the points that were brought up at the education forums across the state,” O’Neal said. “It’s very similar to SB451, which failed in the House in February.”

Senate Majority Leader and Republican Tom Takubo made a motion Saturday to suspend constitutional rules requiring a bill to be read on three separate days, but the vote failed.

Changes to the bill Saturday included removal of strike and work stoppage language, which was worrisome to many of the teachers. Democratic senators asked for the separate policies in the bill to be considered on their own, while Republicans insisted that the bill was intended to work together.  State Sen. Paul Hardesty (D-Logan) said he supports 80% of the bill but wished he could tear it apart because it’s the “same script that was forced down our throats earlier this year.”

The Senate adjourned until Sunday afternoon, with Carmichael stating in a press conference Saturday night that the “backup plan is Sunday, Monday.”

He said although he wasn’t fully confident that he could pass the bill, he appealed to senators from both sides of the aisle to come together.

“You can be an obstructionist if you want and come to the Capitol and not vote on an issue that you clearly know what it’s about, or you can come here prepared to do the work, save the taxpayer money, and make a decision on a bill that you’ve had in your pocket for eight days,” Carmichael said.

Whether the Senate passes the bill or not, it will still have to pass the House before becoming law. West Virginia House leader Roger Hanshaw sent word to delegates that the House will reconvene on June 17.

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