West Virginia is in an educational crisis right now with a statewide teacher strike now in its 4th day. Schools in all 55 counties are closed and while teachers descend on the capital, hold signs, and advocate for more pay, parents are scrambling to find childcare so that they can continue to work. The state hasn’t seen a statewide teacher strike since 1990 and at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to this work stoppage. The last strike lasted eleven days.
There are important questions that need to be answered to understand the situation in West Virginia. Perhaps most importantly, we need to understand what precipitated the strike. Hallie Detrick at Fortune.com sums it up this way:
At the heart of the strike is a bill signed last Wednesday by West Virginia Governor Jim Justice that gave teachers a 2% raise in July and a 1% raise in 2020 and 2021. But teachers say it didn’t go far enough to address issues associated with the cost of living in the state. In particular, they complain that the cost of getting health care through the public employees insurance program, which covers all state employees, is too high. Beyond the difficulties they face in making ends meet, teachers fear these conditions will discourage good educators from coming to the state and staying.
Governor Justice admits that teachers are underpaid but while he sees the action taken on teacher pay as a “step in the right direction,” teachers say it just isn’t enough. It would be hard for him to deny it considering that there are teachers who work two jobs and still qualify for food stamps and WIC.
It’s hard to pin down salary details as figures vary from source to source. USA Today and other outlets make the claim that West Virginia ranks 48th out of 50 when it comes to average teacher pay (though The West Virginia News lists says they are 49th)—either way, it’s not good. According to the National Education Association (or NEA), the average teacher salary in West Virginia is $44,701, which puts them significantly below the national average of $58,353. By comparison, California teachers earn an average of $77,179 and in New York that figure jumps to $79,152.
The state’s superintendent of schools, Steven Paine, himself agrees that his teachers “deserve more” and in a statement, he said the following:
I fully recognize that our teachers and service personnel deserve more and, I personally know the West Virginia Board of Education, our Governor and our State Legislators agree. Unfortunately, the economic realities of our state may not allow everything teachers deserve to take place immediately.
Paine also says in his statement that work stoppages by public employees are “not lawful.” The State Attorney General, Patrick Morrisey, took a stronger stance in calling the strike “illegal.” (Apparently the word illegal implies that a crime has been committed and legal scholars say that while the strike is against the law, it isn’t a crime.”
With the knowledge that many of their students are poor, teachers have taken action to ensure that students are fed during the work stoppage. Teachers, staffers, and volunteers have been packing bags with meals and as the strike goes on, they continue to step off the picket line to make sure their students eat. According to one CNN report, “some families are finding striking teachers on their doorstep with boxes of food.”
And there has also been collaboration between schools and local churches to provide pizza lunches to students. Pastor Brandon Carter described his involvement this way:
We want to make sure the kids are not hungry, and the teachers are appreciated. We’re not in the political fray. They’ve made a decision they need to make for their livelihoods. We’re not concerned with that. We’re just letting them know we care about them and support them.
But despite the care shown by teachers and community leaders around meals, many parents are, predictably, becoming increasingly frustrated and angry over the strike. Some are most upset over the disruption to their own work life while others feel that they face the same challenges at work and don’t have the option to go on strike.
“I’m a nurse, and I’m underpaid and overworked,” she said, “and my insurance went up too, but if I go on strike, then I’m gonna lose my license because that’s neglect, so I can’t go on strike, and I just don’t think that’s very fair.”
“If I don’t send my kid to school, I go to court, I get fined or go to jail,” parent Ritchie Kingery said, “but they can go stay out of school, the teachers, and that’s fine, but they just keep adding days.” -Father, Ritchie Kingery
“It just makes me so mad,” – single mother who didn’t want to be identified but says she’s working fewer hours at her job to make sure her son is taken care of.
The truth is, there are no winners here. Students need to be in school and teachers need to be able to afford to live—it is unconscionable that a professional, a teacher, be eligible for food assistance because of how little money they make. The issue of rising health care costs is plaguing school districts everywhere but as a non-union state with such low salaries, it is absurd to think that West Virginia teachers can absorb those costs. But it is also absurd to pretend that parents will be able to handle any more days of a teacher strike. The last thing anyone wants is for parents to lose their jobs because they were forced to skip work and take care of their children who should have been in school.
Let’s hope the powers that be find the political will to come up with a solution that works for everyone and gets West Virginia’s students and teachers back to school.