CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia voters will have the final say on a ballot question that would change the state’s constitution to give the Republican-dominated legislature control of virtually every aspect of education audience.
The vote comes amid a raging nationwide fight over the politicization of schools. Republican leaders in West Virginia have joined politicians elsewhere in pushing to regulate how topics such as race are taught in classrooms and channel public money into alternative education options, including charter schools and voucher programs.
Just this year, the State Board of Education joined a lawsuit against top Republicans over a school choice program — one of the largest in the nation — alleging it is so draining. public school money unconstitutional. The case went to the state Supreme Court, which sided with lawmakers.
And in a state that was once a bastion of organized labor, some see the proposed amendment as part of an effort to water down the most formidable center of union power still standing: public school workers. Four years after more than 30,000 school workers went on strike in one of the country’s poorest states, triggering teacher walkouts across the country, many say they are overworked and exhausted.
Teachers say some of the issues that drew them to the picket lines in 2018 and 2019 — high teacher vacancy rates, declining test scores, lack of mental health support — have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. 19, and now lawmakers are trying to assert more control. Dale Lee, the head of the state’s largest union of public educators, said educators felt “disrespected” and called the proposed amendment “just another way for our politicians to try to ‘erode our public schools with their own private agenda’.
“When you hear politicians start the discussion with ‘Trust Me,’ you know you’re in trouble,” said Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.
By law, all West Virginia government agencies are required to submit new rules and regulations to lawmakers each year for final approval. The only exempt body is the Ministry of Education. Amendment 4 would change that.
GOP lawmakers say the people who make decisions about schools should be accountable to voters. Governor-appointed state school board members confirmed by the West Virginia Senate serve nine-year terms — the longest of any U.S. state — and cannot be easily removed.
Republican House Majority Leader Amy Summers said lawmakers want to give parents a bigger voice in their children’s education.
“What you find is that people don’t like accountability,” she said. “They don’t like you questioning what they’re doing.”
But Democratic Congressman Sean Hornbuckle, one of West Virginia’s few black lawmakers and a member of the House Education Committee, said Republicans had nothing to do with taking back public schools as they had still not been able to help them.
“Why would we hand everything over to the legislature when we haven’t done our job to begin with?” he said.
He said his colleagues preferred to tackle “social issues that don’t move the agenda just for political posturing.”
During the last legislative session, he said, lawmakers spent weeks on a bill that would restrict how public educators teach students about race, but refused to accept proposals to end inequalities between white and black students around school discipline, with black students being more likely to be punished.
Union officials cite a series of “retaliatory” laws passed since they went on strike that they say have harmed teachers and drained resources from mainstream public schools, including a law banning public employees from doing strike and pressure for charter schools.
The Hope Scholarship Program, the school choice initiative upheld by the state’s Supreme Court, provides families with $4,300 a year in state money for each child they graduate from school. public school and towards private or home schooling.
Jason Huffman, West Virginia director for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group that supports Amendment 4, said West Virginians have made it clear they want more alternatives to public education. by electing representatives who support them. But education decisions in West Virginia, he said, are influenced by outside groups, including labor unions, “largely political organizations” that push their own agenda — one that he says runs counter to what voters want. Americans For Prosperity is funded by Koch Industries.
Senate Education Committee Chair Amy Grady said she hoped bringing the board of education under legislative control would encourage better communication.
“It can’t be some sort of ‘us versus them’ mentality,” she said. “The legislature that makes changes that the (education) ministry doesn’t agree with doesn’t really benefit anyone.”
Grady, a public school teacher who took part in the 2018 teachers’ strike, said she was inspired to run for office because of that experience, but left the union when her local union representatives refused. to support her in the race because she is pro-school – republican choice.
“When it comes to education, it should be black and white, it should be, ‘Is it good for students or not?'” she said. “But unfortunately it backfires where it’s political.”
Amber McCoy, a fourth-grade teacher at Huntington, said she sees a class divide emerging in the education system – exacerbated by the pandemic – in which children without support at home are falling further behind. .
McCoy said parents in Huntington, where one in three people live below the poverty line, need public schools to be open so they can work. They cannot afford to homeschool their children or provide transportation to charter or private schools.
She said programs such as the Hope Scholarship gave resources to children who “already had a head start”.
“Public education is the way out of poverty for most children in West Virginia,” she said. “We are creating an education system of haves and have-nots.”
Every teacher she knows has considered leaving the field, she said.
“No one wants to do this anymore,” she said. “I don’t know when the general public gets the message or feels the concern, but it’s like a raging five-alarm fire and the only people who recognize it are those stuck in the building.”
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