WHEELING – There’s nothing worse for a corrupt politician than meeting someone who can’t be bought. It’s like watching a cat fall in a bathtub: you see first shock, and then anger, as though the world itself has betrayed him. A sellout simply assumes that everyone else is also selling and he bristles at a world where money is not the only currency.
The Republicans designed Senate Bill 451 as straightforwardly as any protection racket. A 5 percent raise for West Virginia’s educators, inextricably linked to a series of proposals to weaken her public schools. The text of the bill explicitly stated that if any part of its “omnibus” provisions were found unconstitutional or illegal, the raise would be taken away.
“That’s a nice paycheck you’re getting, teach. Be a shame if something happened to it. ...”
It must have seemed like a sure thing for Senate President Mitch Carmichael and the GOP. “We’ll make them an offer they can’t refuse.” But it turns out that West Virginia’s teachers and school service personnel weren’t selling. On Feb. 19, they went on strike for the second time in as many years.
They had every reason to do so. Republicans filled the omnibus bill with poison pills. It contained provisions weakening the right of teachers to unionize and negotiate in the future. It diverted public money into private hands in the form of so-called charter schools that have allowed private businesses to walk away with hundreds of millions in tax dollars leaving students and communities with nothing. It sought to deprive veteran teachers of benefits they had earned over years of service.
It’s not hard to figure out what this is all about. The three largest pots of money in state government are the roads, the schools and Medicaid. That’s why your typical Republican idea involves taking money from one of these three pots out of the public’s hands and transferring it to some private businessman. Charters and other privatization schemes are the chief method for doing this in the education arena.
Privatization of public schools yields predictable results. Wealthy families take full advantage, and concentrate their kids in schools with vast resources. Middle class families have to go into debt just to get a whiff of the middle-of-the-road schools. What little public money is left is what the poor kids get: the worst facilities, locations, lowest-paid staff, and then they are concentrated away from the lucky winners. And charters have ways of weeding out the kinds considered “undesirable” by the architects of these cash grabs.
The Republicans thought they could buy all this hardship for West Virginia’s kids with a raise for the state’s educators, but the teachers and school service personnel declared on Monday evening that the kids and their schools were not for sale. The out-of-state organizations, like ALEC, that run these bills on a river of special interest money must be stunned to find a group of people they can’t pay off to get what they want.
It’s pretty clear that part of Carmichael’s motivation to push this without the governor has to do with payback from last year’s strike. That’s why his version of the bill included the anti-union and anti-strike provisions. Republicans proposed those changes as a way of saying “we’ll negotiate in good faith as soon as you lay down your arms.” Agreeing to terms like that would be an unconditional surrender – accepting not only the plundering of the education budget this year, but in every year to come.
Now that the strike has begun, West Virginians need to come together and understand the stakes. Killing the bad bill is not enough. The Legislature needs to reform education the right way, with students put first instead of private business. West Virginia’s teachers remain some of the lowest paid in the country and that needs to change. The raise must go through without the poison pills. Moreover, the PEIA system needs to fixed once and for all to guarantee its future solvency with adequate revenue. Even if the oil and gas drillers have to pay another point or two on their millions and billions, West Virginia’s kids deserve that money to fund their educations.
The opioid epidemic and the poverty in West Virginia have made social workers and psychologists out of educators. New funds need to be appropriated to add counselors and trained professionals to help kids with drug issues in their homes cope at school so they can learn when they’re in class. The current ratio of students to counselors should be cut in half by adding enough new personnel so that every child can get the special help they require.
Funding must also be increased for students with disabilities. It is a persistent injustice that children with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities are often left behind because politicians will not adequately fund the equipment needed to integrate those kids into regular classrooms. Research shows they can succeed if accommodations are made. Every student is a precious resource and our political leadership needs to treat each child as equally deserving and worthy of education.
Before anyone says “well, how are we going to pay for all that,” remember that hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts for wealthy businesses are always at the top of the Republican agenda. They say we have the millions and millions to do that, so it stands to reason we have the money to do what’s right for West Virginia’s children. The kids have waited long enough for their priorities to be the top priorities.
The educators and their strike represent the overwhelming majority of West Virginians’ interests. If teachers can’t strike to do what’s right for the schools and the children, how can any working people hope to stand up for better wages, decent hours, or affordable medical care? Everyone who works benefits when a strike succeeds.
Let everyone in this state who earns a wage come together to support this strike for as long as it takes to secure the reforms we need. Some school days will be missed. But solidarity in the face of injustice and unity in support of what is right will be the best lesson West Virginia’s children ever learn.
Regan is the former vice chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party and an attorney with Bordas & Bordas, PLLC in Wheeling.