West Virginia House Debates Education Bill Amid Teacher Protests

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. The state House of Delegates debated its version of the bill Monday. (Kenny Kemp/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

CHARLESTON, W. Va. (CN) – Lawmakers in West Virginia considered another education omnibus bill Monday, amid nearly two years of strikes by angry teachers in the state demanding pay raises and a Republican-led state Senate intent on privatizing education across the state.

The West Virginia House considered its version of the education omnibus bill which, unlike the bill that passed the state Senate earlier this month, seeks to cap the number of charter schools 10 statewide but still allows educational savings accounts or ESAs. Significantly, the House version of the bill also removes a controversial provision to make strike and work stoppage language illegal for state workers.

Teachers and union leaders said the few changes the House bill promotes aren’t enough to alleviate their worry and frustration. The West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers joined a handful of teachers’ unions in the fight against the bill Monday.

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said the people of West Virginia have made it clear they aren’t interested in charter schools or educational savings accounts.

“We are interested in doing things that will help our students, like wrap-around services, smaller class sizes, and more counselors and school nurses in the school to help deal with the opioid crisis,” Lee said.

About 3,000 teachers, union leaders and labor organizers, and supporters from all over the state converged upon the marble halls of the state capitol Monday to make their demands heard and sway lawmakers in the West Virginia House.

Jim White, a middle school choir and music teacher from Ritchie County, said he was never politically involved until the recent wave of strikes and issues facing his profession.

“I just can’t believe all the arrogance and corruption,” White said. “I think the legislators are out of bounds on a lot of these things. I think something needs to be done to stop this and to give teachers in this state more equality compared to many of the surrounding states.”

Outside the capitol at 11 a.m., labor union leaders including Lee and United Mine Workers of America leader Cecil Roberts, spoke to the crowd, which included sympathetic union members including steelworkers and pipefitters.

“Why would coal miners and teachers and school personnel be at the same place and same time?” Roberts asked the cheering crowd. “In case you haven’t noticed, they’re after all of us!”

He added: “Look around. Brothers and sisters, this is a historic day! This is the day that we said we won’t go back, we won’t turn around, and we’re making a stand against out-of-state interests!”

President Donald Trump also chimed in, tweeting in support of West Virginia Governor Jim Justice on Monday.

“One size doesn’t fit all-I support West Virginia schools. Keep up the great work @WVGovernor Big Jim Justice-I am with you!” Trump tweeted.

Justice, who has publicly feuded with Republicans in the state Senate, including state Sen. Mitch Carmichael, over their education reform bill, famously switched parties from Democrat to Republican during a Trump rally in Huntington, West Virginia, in August 2017.

A vote to table the motion narrowly passed, 53-44. The bill then went to the floor for a Monday evening session and, over the objection of the House Democrats, was read a first time – putting it on track for passage as early as Wednesday.

The public will get the chance to weigh in on the House education bill at a hearing set for 8 a.m. Wednesday.

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