West Virginia Teachers are #55United: About the Strike

img_7280This week and last has seen my wild and wonderful state in the news quite a bit more than we’re accustomed to. Today marks the sixth day of a statewide teacher work stoppage brought about by decades-long frustration over legislative inaction to prioritize a long-term solution to problems with teacher benefits, salaries, and qualifications. As a result, every single school in all 55 counties of our state is closed.

Since I’m not teaching K-12 anymore, I’m a little removed from this strike, but as a teacher who is invested in public education, I’m very much aware of the reasons teachers are protesting.

A good place to get acquainted with the reasons behind the strike is this lovely post by Jessica Salfia, our West Virginia Council of Teachers of English president.

The skyrocketing insurance premiums Jessica mentions are a large part of teachers’ frustration. The proposed changes to the Public Employees Insurance Agency, known here as PEIA, would impact not just teachers but all public employees. The new premium and deductible schedule, created when state funding for PEIA decreased, would mean a huge increase in monthly insurance premiums, annual deductibles, and maximum out-of-pockets.

For my family, for example (PEIA is our only insurance option, since my husband and I are both state employees), our monthly premium would increase from $140 a month to $308 per month. Our annual deductibles would increase from $1025 per person to $2600 per person.

The legislature initially offered a 1% pay raise per year over 5 years–$404 per year, which is 1% of the average teacher salary, and is all they’re offering to every teacher, regardless of their salary or experience. Even over 5 years, that raise would not offset the proposed increases to PEIA costs. Educators–and all public employees–would effectively have their paychecks cut.

In addition, legislators had bills on the table to lower teacher certification standards to fill some of the 700+ teaching vacancies in our state, to remove seniority, and to reduce the power of unions in West Virginia. This is all on top of the fact that West Virginia teacher salaries rank 48th in the nation–the 3rd lowest in America.

img_7278It’s clear why teachers are frustrated, right?

Fast forward to Tuesday of this week, when Governor Jim Justice announced that he would find the funds to offer a 5% raise immediately to teachers while a task force worked on a long-term solution to the PEIA problem. This article from The Atlantic details Justice’s expectation that with this solution, teachers would return to work this Thursday. (The article also does a wonderful job explaining the strike in more detail, with context given by my friend and colleague, Audra Slocum.)

Today is Thursday…and schools are still closed. As I drove to work this morning, teachers were still lining the major roadways with their signs waving in the cold rain. A chorus of horns drowned out my radio in support of the teachers’ efforts.

The strike continues.

My students and I will watch this video message from John Green in class today, and we’ll discuss what education might look like if Green’s vision of public education–a vision in which all citizens valued their right to a quality, free education and were willing to collectively fund it because they believed in its importance–were reality.

img_7279That is the heart of why teachers are protesting, in my opinion, and it’s why I support the #55United effort. Our students’ right to a high-quality education is of paramount importance. It is with that education that they can enact change, as the students of Parkland have this week. When we value education and educators, we show our faith in our young people. West Virginia seems to lack a commitment to high-quality education when it proposes to lower teacher certification standards, salaries, and benefits to an unrealistic, and damaging, level.

I became a teacher because I wanted to change the world for the better. I wish the taxpayer base, legislative bodies, and voting public who can influence the direction of public education in this country believed that of all teachers, so that our profession could be elevated to its full potential.

What are your questions about the West Virginia teacher strike? Please leave your questions or messages of support in the comments, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter!

Shana Karnes lives and teaches in West Virginia, whose students, teachers, and mountains are wild and wonderful. She works with preservice and practicing teachers at West Virginia University and is a proud member of the National Writing Project at WVU and the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English. Find Shana on Twitter at @litreader.


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