If you can read this, thank a teacher.
It’s been nearly three weeks since a statewide walkout closed hundreds of schools across West Virginia, but this morning educators returned to their classrooms having prevailed in their demand that state leaders approve a 5 percent increase to their abysmally low wages, ranked among the lowest in the nation.
The agreement was announced Tuesday morning, almost a full week after Senate Republicans balked at going along with a deal union officials had worked up the evening of Feb. 27 with Gov. Jim Justice.
Instead, day after day, Senate President Mitch Carmichael and others in the Senate continued to stall, stubbornly refusing to provide the promised 5 percent pay increase. Carmichael’s cavalier “take it or leave it” attitude left teachers, other state workers and many other West Virginians fuming.
In holding out for the 5 percent increase for all state employees, teachers have done the right thing, even though the deal still doesn’t provide for a long-term fix to the state’s listing Public Employee Insurance Agency. The governor is setting up a task force to study the problem. Teachers took a hard line because they had to — this year’s legislative session has been marked by outright hostility for public education and a remarkable indifference to the needs of the more than 277,000 public schoolchildren in West Virginia to be taught by a skilled and competent work force.
Lawmakers have demonstrated such obtuseness, some apparently honestly believed that simply withdrawing legislation that weakened certification requirements and seniority rules would be enough to mollify educators. In truth, the change of heart left educators asking: Why would such regressive legislation ever be considered in the first place?
The end of the strike isn’t all good news, however. In approving the pay increase sought by teachers, Republicans in the Senate have managed to punch down, demanding sharp cuts to Medicaid spending and other services.
It’s a “Hunger Games”-style of governance made possible by the fact that Senate leaders know full well there will be no angry throngs at the state Capitol rallying on behalf of the poor and uninsured.
Through it all, Republicans in the Senate have demonstrated a remarkable adeptness at refusing to go along with an obvious solution — an increase to oil and natural gas severance taxes. According to Ted Boettner with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, business and consumer tax cuts passed by state lawmakers since 2006 have cost the state more than $425 million annually and never resulted in the much-ballyhooed promise of business investment in the Mountain State, and were instead followed up once Republicans came to power in 2014 with the passage of a boilerplate right-to-work bill and the repeal of the state’s longstanding prevailing wage law, both of which have only undermined workers and communities.
While teachers clearly can’t wait to get back to work and stayed busy Tuesday expressing their gratitude for the support of their superintendents, school boards, parents and whole communities, it’s likely they won’t forget the ordeal that Senate Republicans put them – and students and the many families in West Virginia – through, and put them through completely unnecessarily.
Lawmakers may come to regret the disdain they showed these hard-working, passionate educators come election day. Whether they’re in a classroom or crowded into the Capitol, teachers do not enjoy being ignored.