West Virginia educators strike to kill omnibus education bill


Douglas Harding

Local parent, Jill LaFear, looks on as Delegate Matthew Rohrbach (R- Cabell, 17), Delegate Chad Lovejoy (D- Cabell, 17) and Delegate John Mandt (R- Cabell, 16) read through and discuss Senate Bill 451 during a town hall meeting Feb. 16 at the Cabell County Public Library in Huntington.

As developments regarding Senate Bill 451 progressed to allow for seven charter schools across the state, among other additions, West Virginia’s major school employee unions called for another work strike Monday evening, less than a year after educators initially took to the streets protesting rising healthcare costs.

Early Tuesday afternoon, the West Virginia House of Delegates effectively postponed the bill, leaving time for delegates who voted to kill it to reconsider and potentially call for a re-vote.

While much of the media’s focus has been on the possible impacts of the controversial education bill, many teachers, parents and legislators have observed that the narrative surrounding the bill has seemed to distract the public—and lawmakers— from focusing on the root of West Virginia public education’s real problem: a desperate need for a long-term solution for the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

“There’s nothing in this bill that touches PEIA,” Delegate Chad Lovejoy (D- Cabell, 17) said Saturday during a town hall meeting at Cabell County Public Library in Huntington. “We’re not going to do anything about PEIA. That’s the problem.”

Lovejoy said a bill intended to improve public education would feature mental health care and classroom size improvements along with a solution to PEIA, all features not included in SB 451.

“I believe the bill is punitive in nature, and, even worse than that, it has the intentions and would have the consequences of devaluing public education,” Lovejoy said. “That’s why I voted no. I thought we should kill it.”

The bill’s punitive nature—that it was intended to punish public employees for last year’s strikes—is a reason many local educators and parents say they feel betrayed by lawmakers.

“My biggest thought on the bill is everything should’ve been separate,” Staci Wallace, a former teacher and current organizational development specialist with West Virginia Education Association, said. “Putting it all together into an omnibus bill does not suggest that the WV Senate had the wellbeing of our students in mind.”

Wallace, too, said the bill seems to be a clear attempt at retaliation for the 2018 teacher strikes.

While some aspects of the bill could be beneficial for students and teachers, she said, the harmful aspects greatly outweigh any perceived positives.

“I 100 percent think the bill is a distraction to keep folks not focused on the fact that nothing is being fixed with PEIA,” Wallace said. “Education reform cannot happen when educators do not have a seat at the table.”

Issues with PEIA are deliberately not being addressed by lawmakers, Daniella Parent, a teacher at Cabell Midland High School, said.

Educators understand PEIA is funded currently, she said, but they have been specific in their demands for a dedicated funding source for PEIA to avoid further issues in the [near] future.

“This is just smoke and mirrors,” Parent said. “It’s a distraction. Most teachers and delegates I’ve spoken with believe the same.”

Although few items in the bill are meant to “sweeten the pot,” Parent said, the charter school aspect of the bill is “a poison pill” that educators and parents are “unwilling to swallow.”

In addition to distracting the media and public from the PEIA situation, SB 451 is also likely against Article XII Section 10 of the West Virginia Constitution requiring a majority of voters to approve establishing a new independent school district or organization, Jill LaFear, a local parent, said.

“This bill is proof our lawmakers don’t listen to their constituents,” LaFear said. “We’re all for education reform, but educators, parents and students must be involved in the decision-making.”

LaFear said she wholeheartedly supports the educators’ work stoppage.

Instead of combining everything into one omnibus bill, lawmakers should work with educators and constituents to improve each issue individually, Jenny Anderson, director of Families Leading Change, a statewide coalition to help improve public education, said Monday during a public meeting regarding SB 451 at Marshall University’s Memorial Student Center.

“This bill was truly created to divide us,” Anderson said. “It was definitely retaliation from last year and a clear diversion from working to fix PEIA.”

Anderson said she supports the teachers striking because she feels they have no other choice.

“The senate put public education in danger, and the teachers and service personnel have no other way to take a stand at this point,” she said. “We need an extreme showing of solidarity.”

Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected]