Battle rages in W.Va. over control of public school policy
Voters in West Virginia will get the final say on a ballot question that would amend the state constitution to give the Republican-dominated legislature control over virtually every aspect of public schooling.
The vote comes amid a fight raging nationally over the politicization of schools. West Virginia’s Republican leaders have joined politicians elsewhere in pushing to regulate how subjects such as race are taught in classrooms and funnel 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 nation’s most expansive — alleging it unconstitutionally drains money from public schools. The case went to the state Supreme Court, which sided with lawmakers.
And in a state that once was a stronghold of organized labor, some see the proposed amendment as part of an effort to defang the most formidable center of union power left standing: public school employees. Four years after more than 30,000 school workers went on strike in one of the nation’s poorest states, igniting teacher walkouts nationwide, many say they’re overworked and exhausted.
Teachers say some of the problems that drew them to the picket lines in 2018 and 2019 — high teacher vacancy rates, falling test scores, lack of mental health support — worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, and now lawmakers are trying to assert more control. Dale Lee, the head of the state’s largest public educators’ union, said educators feel “disrespected” and called the proposed amendment “just another way of our politicians trying to erode our public schools with their own private agenda.”
“When you hear politicians start out the discussion with ’Trust me,’ you know you’re in trouble,” said Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.
By law, all government agencies in West Virginia are required to submit new rules and regulations each year to lawmakers for final approval. The only agency exempt is the Department of Education. Amendment 4 would change that.
GOP lawmakers say people making decisions about schools should be accountable to voters. West Virginia’s governor-appointed and senate-confirmed state school board members serve nine-year terms — the longest in any U.S. state — and can’t easily be removed.
Republican House Majority Leader Amy Summers said lawmakers want to give parents a greater voice in their children’s education.
“What you find is people don’t like accountability,” she said. “They don’t like you to question what they’re doing.”
But Democratic Del. Sean Hornbuckle, one of the few Black lawmakers in West Virginia and a member of the House Education Committee, said Republicans have no business taking over public schools when they’ve consistently failed to help them.
“Why would we hand over everything to the Legislature when we haven’t been doing our job to begin with?” he said.
He said his colleagues prefer to take up “social issues that don’t move the agenda just for political posturing.”
This past legislative session, he said, lawmakers spent weeks on a bill that would restrict how public educators teach students about race, but refused to take up proposals to end inequities between white and Black students around school discipline, with Black students more likely to be punished.
Union representatives cite a slew of “retaliatory” laws passed since they went on strike that they say have harmed teachers and drained resources from traditional public schools, including a law barring public employees from striking and the push for charter schools.
The Hope Scholarship Program, the school choice initiative that the state Supreme Court affirmed, offers families $4,300 a year in state money for each child they move out of public school and into private education or homeschooling.
Jason Huffman, West Virginia director for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group that supports Amendment 4, said the people of West Virginia 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 being influenced by outside groups including unions, “largely political organizations” that push their own agenda — one he feels flies in the face of what voters want. Americans for Prosperity is supported by Charles Koch, chairman and CEO of Koch Industries.
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Amy Grady said she hopes putting the board of education under legislative control will encourage better communication.
“It can’t be a ‘us versus them’ kind of mentality,” she said. “The Legislature making changes that the department (of education) is not on board with really doesn’t benefit anybody.”
Grady, a public school teacher who participated 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 declined to support her in the race because she’s a pro-school-choice Republican.
“When it comes to education, it should just be black and white, it should be, ‘Is this good for students or is it not?’” she said. “But unfortunately, it gets turned around to where it is political.”
Amber McCoy, a fourth-grade teacher in Huntington, said she sees a class divide emerging in the education system — exacerbated by the pandemic — in which kids who don’t have support at home fall further behind.
McCoy said parents in Huntington, where one in three people lives below the poverty line, need public schools to be open so they can work. They can’t afford to homeschool their children or provide transportation to charter or private schools.
She said programs such as the Hope Scholarship give resources to kids who “already had a leg up.”
“Public education is the pathway out of poverty for most children in the state of West Virginia,” she said. “We’re creating an educational system of the haves and the have-nots.”
Every teacher she knows has considered leaving the field, she said.
“Nobody wants to do this anymore,” she said. “I don’t know at what point the general public gets the message or feels the concern, but it’s like a five-alarm fire raging and the only people that recognize it are the ones trapped in the building.”
This story was first published on Oct. 22. It was updated on Oct. 24 to make clear that Americans for Prosperity is supported by Charles Koch, chairman and CEO of Koch Industries.
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