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Bill puts W.Va. teachers back on edge a year after strike

January 24, 2019
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee discusses an omnibus education bill Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, at the state Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. The bill would provide for additional teacher pay raises. But it also would create public charter schools and include other provisions that are putting unions on edge. (AP Photo/John Raby)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia public school teachers are back on edge after the introduction of a bill aimed at revamping the state’s education system took aim at unions less than a year after a lengthy strike resulted in better pay.

The draft legislation unveiled Thursday includes promised additional pay raises but also other provisions that left some teachers smoldering.

It also raises the possibility that the unions could end up mobilizing again.

“I can’t believe what I just heard,” said Christi Phillips, who was among the thousands of West Virginia striking teachers last year. “It was like a slap in the face. I really don’t want to fight them again, but if this goes through, I’m afraid it’s going to get ugly. I can’t believe they would want to poke the bear again.”

Among other things, the comprehensive 138-page bill would increase elementary school class sizes, establish savings accounts for families to pay for private school and require teachers to sign off annually on union dues.

Most of the discussion before the Senate education committee was about the proposed establishment of public charter schools, including giving counties the authority to increase levy rates to allocate more revenue for that purpose.

Committee chairwoman Sen. Patricia Rucker limited senators’ questions, but she said she did so in order to allow enough time to have the wide-ranging bill explained. Another meeting was scheduled for Friday.

Rucker, R-Jefferson, was appointed in December to lead the Senate education committee. She is a former public school teacher in Maryland who homeschools her five children and supports charter schools.

Some senators initially questioned whether the language in the bill met the definition of a charter school, which typically are tailored to students’ needs.

Senators and union leaders also expressed confusion because of the bill’s complexity and the fact that there appeared to be three different versions of the bill floating around.

“That was as clear as mud the way he explained it,” said Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne.

One version later was posted online . It wasn’t immediately clear when it would be introduced in the Senate. The draft bill did not include a cost estimate.

“We keep hearing the word ‘comprehensive,’ but it was obvious that it’s very hard to comprehend what was going to be in that bill besides charter schools,” said Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers’ West Virginia chapter.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael said earlier Thursday the idea behind the bill is improving student test scores and performances. He said the state’s education system “is not serving the needs of our children.”

Rucker said the draft bill was a “vision that has been worked on with input from many,” including county school boards and superintendents. But union leaders said they were left out of the discussion.

The bill also includes a $2,000 differential pay for teachers in critical shortage areas such as math, $250 tax credits for teachers who buy school equipment and supplies, increasing the number of pupils per teacher from 25 to 28 in grades one through six; and allowing teachers to apply accrued sick days toward the cost of their health insurance upon retirement.

“We don’t understand at this point the message that we need to give to our members other than we know the overview of this bill has some very confusing areas and things that we can’t sit back and allow to happen to our public schools in West Virginia,” Albert said.

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said he was disappointed by the bill. He said unrelated items in the bill should be voted on separately.

West Virginia teachers won a 5 percent pay raise after a nine-day strike last year. Another 5 percent increase is included in the current draft bill.

Lee said the bill has an all-or-nothing message: “If you want the good, we’re (also) going to throw the bad at you. We’re going to hurt public education for a small pittance of a pay raise.”

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