Last week, teachers in West Virginia staged a statewide strike for the second time in as many years. The 2018 walkout, which forced students to miss nine days of school and inspired copycat strikes across the nation, primarily focused on teachers’ salaries and benefits.
For the most part, the strong-arm tactics worked. Not only did teachers get a 5 percent raise last year, they were also promised an additional 5 percent raise in this year’s bill, along with other financial perks and amendments to their health plans.
It all fell apart this year, though, when legislators had the gall to couple the promised pay raises with education choice and other reforms in an education omnibus. The central sticking point: Senate Bill 451 tried to authorize a handful of public charter schools (the number would have been capped at seven schools — for the entire state), as well as $3,300 in Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) for a very limited number of special-needs students.
These meager measures were enough for West Virginia teachers’ unions to declare war. Teachers walked off the job last Tuesday and Wednesday, with compliant county superintendents closing schools in solidarity. This action shielded teachers both from lost pay and from disciplinary action related to the strike, which is not lawful for public employees in West Virginia. (Unlike last year, when all 55 counties closed, this year’s strike saw one brave county superintendent standing alone and keeping schools open.)
Once again, the strike was effective. It only took until the second day of this year’s walkout for Republicans in the House of Delegates to fold like a cheap lawn chair, voting to table the Senate’s education bill indefinitely. West Virginia’s feckless Republican Governor Jim Justice—who was elected in 2016 as a Democrat and promptly switched parties—urged the legislature to pacify unions and send him a clean pay raise bill. The House complied, passing a pay-raise-only bill within days. But Republicans in the Senate, in a rare display of backbone, initially voted down the pay raise bill. As of this writing, the standoff between teachers’ unions and Senate Republicans is ongoing. It’s far from certain that West Virginia’s children won’t lose more school days to strikes.
Hearing the Voices of Families
As a 17-year resident of West Virginia, I’ve followed the education battle closely and have seen the resulting strain on working families. In private conversations with friends and neighbors, I’ve noticed a running theme: “Last year I fully supported the teachers. But this year I’m not so sure.” Most people seem to generally support both higher teacher salaries and legalizing some education options, such as charter schools. Even if they’re unsure about school choice, many question whether this year’s strike is justified.
Yet in public forums, the unions’ talking points—“charter schools and ESAs will hurt our public schools and kids”—are holding sway. While opponents of school choice are speaking loudly and with one voice, the many West Virginians who want school choice, or are simply fed up with the strikes, are remaining mostly quiet.
I decided to find some of these families and tell their stories. What I didn’t expect to uncover was a culture of overwhelming fear and intimidation related to unions. This is especially true in the state’s southern coal counties, where organized labor has a long, proud, and sometimes violent history. Some West Virginians’ palpable fear in speaking freely is something I’ve never before encountered in America. It is, in fact, much closer to the corruption culture I’ve experienced in my 22 years of charity work in post-communist Romania.
Despite the obstacles, my brief search yielded testimonies from eight parents and two teachers throughout the state, who requested varying levels of anonymity. Their personal stories paint a picture of an outdated, top-heavy system determined to protect itself and resist reform at all costs. Here’s what they had to say.
‘The teachers’ unions rule this state.’
Kathie Crouse is one parent who isn’t afraid to speak out. After her son began attending kindergarten at Putnam County’s Buffalo Elementary School in 2009, she noticed a rapid deterioration in his mood and behavior. Concerned, she asked if either she or the school principal could sit in on the kindergarten class. Both requests were denied.
Finally, she took matters into her own hands, arming her son with a tape recorder in his backpack. She recorded the classroom for seven days over a two-week period, and discovered that her son and his classmates were being subjected to a litany of verbal and emotional abuse by the teaching staff. After Crouse confronted the school and alerted local media, both the teacher and the teacher’s aide were suspended for a year with pay. Later, however, they were quietly reinstated.
“All they did was give them a year of paid vacation,” Crouse said in an interview. “The unions will always protect the teachers, no matter what they’ve done. They have the money, they have the lawyers—you can’t hold them accountable. The teachers’ unions rule this state.”
Meanwhile, the incident did result in one punishment—to Crouse and her children. “My kids and I were harassed all year long. The teachers hated us, the administrators hated us, the board of education hated us. We finally realized we had to get our kids away from that environment. I remember telling my husband, ‘I wish we had charter schools in this state, then maybe we could get away.’” Crouse ended up pulling her children from school at the end of the year, filing a notice of intent to homeschool.
Today, Crouse is the vice president of the West Virginia Home Educators Association. Besides teaching her children, she spends her days helping other families get started with home education. During both recent teacher strikes, Crouse says she’s fielded a surge of inquiries about homeschooling. “If we don’t end up getting charters and ESAs in West Virginia, that just means I’m going to be a busier person.”
‘I found out my son was being abused from Facebook.’
Crouse’s experience was recently repeated in horrifying fashion in Berkeley County, one of the state’s larger and more prosperous northeastern counties. Amber Pack, the mother of an 8-year-old nonverbal child, suspected abuse and secretly recorded her daughter’s special needs classroom at Berkeley Heights Elementary School in October 2018. In her first and only day of recording, she captured the teacher and two aides taunting children, denying them food, refusing to take them to the bathroom, restraining them in their chairs, threatening to “backhand [them] in the teeth,” and calling the children “animals” and “pygmies.”
Shockingly, after Pack confronted the school with her recording, the school allowed the abusive teaching staff to remain in the classroom for several more weeks. Even after it finally suspended the teacher and two aides, the school did nothing to notify parents of the situation. It wasn’t until Pack posted excerpts of her recording online that other parents learned of the abuse.
Despite the evidence, the abusive teacher and aides were never fired. The school put them on paid leave for months, until a D.C. news station publicized the story, and the resulting public outcry forced their ouster. Even then, they were allowed to resign. State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has now filed a civil complaint against the three women in an attempt to do what the education establishment would not: bar them from future employment as West Virginia teachers.
Kasey Murphy, whose autistic son Owen suffered from the abuse at Berkeley Heights, wrote about her experience in an online post: “It took 28 days for [the recording] to be released on social media,” she wrote. “I had to find out my son was being abused from FACEBOOK.” Murphy has since actively advocated for legislative reforms, especially protections for special-needs children in the classroom. Her story is a clear example of how West Virginia’s union-dominated system is structured to protect adults rather than children.
‘Decisions are made to keep adults happy.’
A teacher in West Virginia’s southern coalfields spoke to me on condition of anonymity, shedding further light on how the system shortchanges children. Having taught for 12 years in Ohio, this teacher noticed a clear difference when she moved to West Virginia. “Moving here wasn’t my first experience with a teachers’ union,” she told me, “but it’s definitely been my most negative.”
“In Ohio, unions were kind of a non-entity,” this teacher says. “They had very little influence on the day-to-day workings of our job. There are much fewer ‘rights’ and ‘privileges’ as a teacher in Ohio compared to West Virginia.” Administrators and principals, she says, have very little power here to put the best or most qualified teachers into certain jobs. “In Ohio there was much more of a focus on ‘what’s best for kids,’ and that’s often how decisions were made. In West Virginia, decisions are made based on keeping adults happy.”
This teacher described several incidents from last year’s strike to illustrate the power of the unions. Union representatives were repeatedly invited to her school and allowed to pressure teachers into voting for the walkouts. “After one of the votes last year, a first-year teacher came to me in tears. She asked for my help and told me she felt pressured by the union reps to vote ‘yes’ for the walkout, when she wanted to vote ‘no.’ I promptly went down to where they were counting the votes and asked that her vote be changed.”
Although teachers at her school initially voted against the strike, the administration refused to let the vote stand, continuing to pressure teachers and holding a new vote each week until they finally got a “yes” majority. At one school staff meeting, my teacher source spoke up, telling her colleagues about her experiences in Ohio and arguing that a strike would be harmful to students. Later, her principal took her aside, told her she was “upsetting people,” and warned her not to speak out against the strike again. She and likeminded colleagues were later criticized on social media for failing to appear in the photos of teachers on picket lines.
“Anyone who thinks differently than the unions has to endure tons of bullying,” she says. “I do not see any positive educational reforms happening in West Virginia until the unions have less power or until they are broken. Let the statistics speak for themselves. This state has the most powerful education unions in the country and yet is one of the lowest-performing states for education. If that isn’t confirmation that something needs changed, I don’t know what is.”
As for this year’s strike, she says it’s all about control. “Charter schools will employ teachers who are non-union, which threatens the union’s power,” she says. “That’s the bottom line reason for the strike against them.”
‘Going against the union was akin to treason.’
Two native West Virginians—one a teacher, one a public school parent—told me that the state’s long history of organized labor is the reason for the unions’ grip on public education. Both are the daughters of coal miners, and both asked me not to identify the southern counties in which they live.
“I remember when I was a child, making jack rocks to throw on the road to bust the tires of anyone who would pass the picket line, so they would wreck,” my parent source told me, asking that I not use her name. “People here are in the same mindset about the teachers’ union. It’s sad that we have to live in fear if we disagree with the union school system. But in my area it’s a fact of life. They hold the community’s children hostage to get what they want.”
“The union achieved impressive results in improving working conditions and pay for coal miners,” says Jessica, who taught in public schools before deciding to homeschool her child this year. “Going against the union was akin to treason and could have resulted in negative consequences, so miners and their families developed a deep respect and even fear for the organizations. As a result, many modern-day West Virginians have carried this same attitude toward unions into the 21st century. From being bullied to ignored to physically threatened, my husband, fellow anti-union friends, and I have all experienced the negative consequences of not supporting union mindsets in our workplaces.”
Jessica identified several structural problems in West Virginia’s education system, especially its practice of prioritizing teacher seniority above all else. Innovative and talented teachers are often bypassed for jobs in favor of teachers who have simply been there longer. (The now-dead omnibus bill would have alleviated this problem.)
“As an educator and as a parent, I support school choice,” Jessica told me. “What is interesting is that one year ago, I had several conversations with co-workers, where the sentiment toward charter schools was quite different. One co-worker expressed a desire to oversee a charter school, citing the benefits of having freedom to choose staff, more say in curriculum, and less government input in terms of funding and school policy. Fellow teachers agreed teaching in a charter school would be desirable because of the freedom to differentiate based on student needs and the ability to express creativity when designing instructional plans.”
“So, what happened in the span of 12 months? Why did these same teachers go from being open to charter schools to determining that they were the death of the West Virginia education system, or to be even more dramatic, the death of the West Virginia way of life? The difference, in my opinion, is that the teachers’ unions determined that charter schools and school choice were dangerous to their continued success in West Virginia.”
‘If I’d known, I probably would not have moved here.’
As the unions tighten their grip and protect their interests, parents are rapidly fleeing both the public school system and the state. West Virginia has the grim distinction of losing population more quickly than any other state in the union, with its public school enrollment dropping by nearly 5,000 students last year. But not everything is in decline; homeschooling is seeing significant and steady growth in West Virginia.
Crystal Hill, of Kanawha County, says she made the decision to homeschool due to “the relentless bullying of all three children, the lack of communication and accountability from teachers, and the inability to be heard if we had problems.” While some of her kids’ teachers were wonderful, she was unsatisfied overall with their educational progress and emotional health.
Since making the decision to homeschool three years ago, Hill says her children are noticeably happier. “They don’t cry over people picking on them, and they don’t talk down about themselves anymore. We’re still finding our way, but I don’t ever want to send them back to public school.”
Hill wishes she had had educational options years ago. “It took me and my husband three years discussing private schools or homeschooling. We could not afford to send three kids to private school, and we didn’t know anything about homeschooling. Had [school choice] been an option, I could have looked for better schools, or offset the cost of tuition at private schools. Maybe we could have even found a charter school that I thought would work for them. Then they could at least participate in sports.”
For other parents, leaving public school is a health-driven decision. An anonymous parent in Webster County told me that her son, who suffers from cystic fibrosis, attended an elementary school that was kept in a state of continual filth. “When you walked through the front doors of the school, the smell of urine would knock you over. Some of the teachers would actually mark on their floors to see how long it would take before their floors would be cleaned,” she told me. “The school chose to not do anything that the doctors recommended to help keep my son healthy, going against his IEP [Individualized Education Program]. He finally ended up in the hospital due to this. That was my final straw with them.”
Carey Kesecker, in Berkeley County, also decided to homeschool for health reasons. After her daughter had lost 60 percent of her hearing and developed serious sleep apnea during her first few years of public school, Kesecker wanted to pursue an alternate vaccine schedule for health reasons. But West Virginia has one of the strictest mandatory vaccine laws in America. Kesecker decided to homeschool beginning in third grade.
Both women said education tax credits would be a welcome help to their single-income families. “We pay taxes, and some of that money goes to public school, which we do not use,” my Webster County source said. “So getting some back of what we pay would be nice to use for our kids. I would really like to see homeschooled kids allowed to play public school sports. There are many reasons why people homeschool, not just because they hate the system.”
Some families looking for educational choices decide to leave West Virginia altogether, draining the state not just of students but of taxpayers. Sydney, a parent in Berkeley County, and Waneta Henderson, a parent in Jefferson County, both mentioned the availability of charter schools in nearby states as a reason to leave West Virginia. Forty-four U.S. states allow charter schools, including all five of West Virginia’s neighbors.
“We’re thinking about moving to Virginia,” Sydney told me. “It’s only 15 minutes away, and they have great STEM charter schools. I would drive a whole hour to get my kids to a good STEM school.” While Henderson’s two children are already in high school, she wishes charters had been an option when they were younger. “There are wonderful charter schools in Maryland. If I’d known there aren’t any educational options here in West Virginia, I probably would not have moved into this state 15 years ago. I feel like West Virginia doesn’t have much to offer as far as options in education.”
“The unions have spread fear about charter schools and school choice,” Sydney said. “They’re afraid of what’s unfamiliar. They’re afraid we’re going to fail. But it’s not right that everyone should be held hostage because of what a certain group of people feels is necessary for education.”
Let’s Break the Power of Public Unions
It’s time stop allowing unions to hold West Virginia’s children hostage. It’s undeniable that labor unions have played a formative role in the state’s history and culture. In years past, they helped many working families gain better employment conditions, earning a deep sense of loyalty (and fear) in return.
Yet whatever one’s feelings about private-sector unions, it’s important to note the clear distinction between a union that organizes against a corporate boss and one that organizes against the voting public. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, a friend to private-sector unions, believed that a “strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to obstruct the operations of government until their demands are satisfied. Such action looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it is unthinkable and intolerable.”
This is precisely why many states, like West Virginia, do not allow collective bargaining or strikes by public-sector unions. Yet this legal protection for the people is now being flouted with impunity, and with the encouragement of many well-meaning West Virginians, who believe they are simply supporting their children’s classroom teachers.
It is particularly brazen for unions to strike not merely over their members’ salaries and benefits, but over public policy issues like school choice, which are properly left to the people’s elected representatives. Essentially, public unions have become a political lobbying group with a superpower: the ability to bring a crucial public service monopoly to its knees. It’s funny how many of the same people who cried foul over the recent federal government shutdown—for which Congress and the president were answerable—have no qualms about similar shutdowns at the behest of unelected lobbyists.
Further, we should recognize that the unions’ long-entrenched intimidation tactics have had a paralyzing effect on public discourse about education. Sen. Patricia Rucker, the lead sponsor of the ill-fated S.B. 451, told me she has been in continual contact with educators throughout the state, who have privately begged for legislative reforms, but are too afraid of the unions to speak out.
“I have promised to keep confidential all the folks who have spoken to me,” Rucker says. “Teachers, administrators, county board members, superintendents. They support reform but can’t speak to it publicly.”
If West Virginia continues to allow teachers’ unions to run roughshod over the will of the people, resisting all meaningful education reforms, the state will continue to bleed residents, students, and taxpayers. In short, it will continue to fail.
The education battle in West Virginia should be seen not as a conflict between the state’s teachers and a handful of intractable senators. It should be seen as a conflict between representative government and a powerful special interest group—one that does not hesitate to intimidate, bully, and flout the law. It should serve not as a model for other states, but a warning.