West Virginia teachers just struck against a windfall for public schools

This week, for the second time in just under a year, West Virginia teachers went on a statewide strike, and they proved even more adept the second time around. In opposition to Senate Bill 451, an omnibus education bill that included two “privatization” provisions, 54 of the state’s 55 districts shut down on Tuesday and Wednesday. A single hold-out district, Putnam County, remained open but reportedly struggled with missing teachers and school bus drivers, and served as a focal point of protesters converging to make the strike 55 strong.

The union’s “all in” strategy did not work in Putnam county, where schools remained open, but it worked in Charleston, where the West Virginia House of Delegates tabled the controversial SB 451 before the first day of striking was over. This second victory in a year may seem like déjà vu all over again, but the two strikes showed critical differences.

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Last March, West Virginia teachers stuck over teacher pay, and after nine days of shuttered schools, Governor Jim Justice signed off on a 5 percent raise in teacher salaries. This time around, teachers took issue with SB 451, which until Tuesday evening was working its way through the state legislature. SB 451 included funding for education savings accounts and charter schools, two “privatization” measures the union would not abide.

The last version of the bill included up to 1,000 education savings accounts (ESAs), each worth about $3,100 which students could use for educational expenses outside of West Virginia’s public schools. The ESA provision amounted to roughly $3.1 million in state funding. Another major provision would allow two charter schools to open in West Virginia per year, with a cap of 7 (charters don’t currently exist in West Virginia). Estimating enrollments of roughly 250 students in the first year at each new charter school, this could cost about $5.5 million in year one. All told, these two provisions would run the state about $8.6 million in year one.

But the other big ticket provisions in the bill are getting far less attention. First among these is another 5 percent raise for teachers, on top of last year’s raise, at a total estimated annual cost of over $45 million. In addition, the bill included a $250 tax credit for teachers’ school supplies (totaling $3.9 million if 80 percent of West Virginia’s nearly 20,000 teachers claim it), a $500 bonus for teachers not absent more than four days per year (totaling $7.9 million if 80 percent receive it), a $2,000 bonus for certified math teachers (estimated at $700,000 for 350 teachers), and an additional $24 million in student support personnel. In sum, SB 451 promised about $84 million annually for traditional public schools, substantially more than was secured for schools in last year’s famed strike.

Despite the additional investment in West Virginia public schools, teachers struck over educational spending outside the traditional public-school system of less than a tenth of current increases, and about one-third of one percent of state education spending.

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Of course, its’s an open question whether these ESAs or charter schools are sensible steps, and West Virginia lawmakers could have been more transparent in making their case. Nonetheless, the union’s position is revealing, and made plain in a statement by Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, who wrote: “Now, the state Senate is trying for a second time this year to ram through a so-called education bill that defunds public education, retaliates against teachers who stood up for their students last year, and appears to be driven by outside wealthy interests like Americans for Prosperity that, like Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosConsumer bureau head says Education Department blocking oversight of student loans Dem lawmaker: Betsy DeVos is 'a nice person, but boy she really is confused' Trump touts budget updates to fund Special Olympics, send astronauts to Mars MORE, want to eliminate public schools.”

Inaccuracy aside, the statement showcases the zero-sum thinking behind the strike. Investing any state education dollars outside the traditional public school system is unacceptable, and worth risking substantial new resource allocations. Have no doubts about how hard a line the unions are taking, as they struck for a second day after the legislature acquiesced to their demands, just to drive home their message.

West Virginia looks to be a bright signal of a larger trend in union activism moving forward, after a tumultuous year of red state strikes that resulted in numerous union victories and the Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court ruling that struck down agency fees and dealt unions a substantial defeat.

In considering how teachers’ unions might adjust to their defeat in Janus and the resulting potential declines in union membership, it seemed they might go the mattresses in a zero-sum defense of traditional public schools, long their dominant strategy, or that the threat of losing members could challenge them to focus first on meeting members’ primary interests like pay and resources, and realign on secondary issues. The latter approach increasingly looks like a pipe dream.

The recent Los Angeles strikes were a struggle over difficult resource constraints, but charters were included as a convenient rallying point to gain traction with the public. West Virginia is another installment focusing on the threat of privatization, despite the comparatively trivial investment. Yet another illustration is what’s happened Thursday and today in Oakland, Calif.,  where opposition to charters is the boogeyman in a strike that hinges on insufficient resources.

Taken together, this pattern suggests anyone hoping for a realignment of union tactics (including the senior author) should lose the rose-colored glasses, and accept that, in the near term, any expansions of charters or other educational opportunities outside traditional public schools will be a rallying point to harden union resolve. Whether the long-term impact of Janus will require teachers unions to change their tack remains to be seen, but in the short term their course looks set.

Nat Malkus is Deputy Director and a Resident Scholar in Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Brendan Bell is the Program Manager in Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.