Teachers watch from the gallery of the West Virginia House of Representatives on Feb. 22, 2018, as the House debated — and ultimately approved — a bill that would raise teacher salaries. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislature

After two statewide teacher strikes in three years, Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, stated a goal for this year’s legislative session that sounded too good to be true.

Lawmakers planned, she said, to seek “input directly from all the teachers in the entire state.”

“We want to hear from them,” Rucker said during a legislative preview event earlier this month. “What is working, what is not. We want to know from the boots on the ground suggestions for improvements.”

One priority, she said, was a problem legislators have struggled with for years: how to make sure West Virginia has enough teachers.

Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislature.

But in an interview Saturday, Rucker said she had not introduced any bills aimed at encouraging teachers to stay. Several teachers, meanwhile, said lawmakers continue to push legislation that drives them away.

As for teacher input, lawmakers released, then abruptly removed, a teacher survey on the Legislature’s website before the session. Lawmakers have not released any results from that survey, and teachers were skeptical of the questions. 

Teachers feel disrespected

“They know exactly what teachers want, because we communicate it loudly and often,” said Dani Parent, who used to teach special needs kids at Huntington East Middle School.

She said she and other teachers frequently make their concerns known at board meetings.

Parent saw the teacher survey on the Legislature’s website, and was put off by a question that asked why she went into teaching. The answers included summers off, the pay, or to help students.

She noted that no one goes into teaching for the money.

Teachers went on strike in 2018 over their health care costs and pay. The next year, they walked out again over a wide-ranging education bill that, among other things, allowed for the state’s first charter schools, which are subject to less regulation. 

Teachers unions said traditional schools couldn’t afford to lose any money to charter schools. Even if schools had fewer students, they’d still have to pay for school staff and building maintenance.

Parent left to work for the nonprofit Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition early in the pandemic. But she still often refers to herself as a teacher.

She grew up in the foster care system in Kentucky, and was inspired to pursue teaching because her own teachers had been a source of stability. 

She stayed with her Home Economics teacher while her mother was in jail, she said. Her teachers would also often pick her up for band practice.

“When you’re in a vulnerable place, just the bare minimum means a whole lot more,” Parent said.

Senate Bill 451, the education bill of 2019 that included everything from charter schools to social workers to pay raises, did help in part, she said.

As a result of that bill, Cabell County education officials employed a social worker to work at several schools, she said.

But poverty and trauma are ever-present problems, she noted.

“That’s why we feel like schools are failing,” she said. “They’re in the business of keeping kids alive and fed and cared for.”

She’s frustrated because lawmakers keep pushing for charter schools and education savings accounts, which take resources away from public schools. 

Education savings accounts allow families to put public money, which would have been allocated to public schools, toward other educational costs like private school or home-school. Traditional schools in West Virginia receive about $4,600 per student, according to a fiscal note for this year’s bill, House Bill 2013.  But Parent noted that if a private school costs more than that, low-income families wouldn’t be able to make up the difference. Kids in the foster care system — like she was — could be left out.

“Nothing is worse than being a teenager and trying to compare yourself to other people and how determined you are to seem normal even when everything in your life is on fire,” she said.

Charter schools don’t have to provide transportation or food, so kids in poverty also might not have those options. 

“The problems [in public schools] are so much bigger than teachers can make a difference in,” Parent said. “You do make a small difference. They’re warm. They’re fed. You buy them shoes or you take them to the pantry and get them a coat. Or you report to the counselors that they need this.”

“You can make small changes. But it’s hard to fight for your students and fight for your job at the same time. And I felt like West Virginia teachers have been fighting just to be able to do their jobs with these constant attacks from the Legislature.”

More bills to promote school choice

House Education Chairman Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, conceded in an interview Wednesday that the $4,600 proposed for education savings accounts could be too little to benefit low-income or  special-needs students, as Democrats argued in the House this week. Ellington said some families maybe wouldn’t be able to pay the extra cost of private schools, although he said some private schools could award scholarship funding to pay those costs.

However, charter schools and education savings accounts have benefits worth exploring, he said. He noted that the bulk of funding allocated per student will stay with traditional schools.

“I support the public school system,” he said. “I want to see it succeed. It’s just not for everyone.”

House Education Chairman Joe Ellington, R-Mercer. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislature.

According to Ellington, there are about 700 teacher vacancies in West Virginia. He and Rucker noted that lawmakers in both the Senate and House of Delegates are working on bills to attract people to the profession who have college degrees in other fields. 

“The whole point is let’s just get certified teachers in the classroom… And they’re going to be certified just like everyone else, the same requirements,” Rucker said. “Let’s try to make certain that we make this a viable option because we do have a lot of people who do retire and still have plenty of years in which they could do something.”

As for teacher retention, Rucker said she personally hadn’t introduced legislation to that end, although her colleagues might have.

Ellington noted that lawmakers have given teachers raises in recent years. He said lawmakers are concerned about retention and may work on that issue later in the session. 

Many teachers feel like babysitters, he said, and are “not really getting to teach.”

“I’d like to see us try to improve the situations in the classroom for them to be happy,” Ellington said. “I think that’s the biggest factor to keep someone in their community is they’re happy going there.”

At the same time, they may be “fearful of making a change,” he said. “They like their comfort level.”

As of now, though, charter schools and education savings account bills remain the priority, and continued concerns about COVID-19 mean lawmakers don’t know exactly how much time they’ll have for other issues.

“Right now we have certain bills we’re trying to move at the present time, because we don’t know how long the session’s gonna last, right?” Ellington said.

Anti-teacher strike bill moving quickly

Another priority for lawmakers is Senate Bill 11, which would put in state law that teachers would not be paid during strikes, and that counties can’t close school for them. The bill is already scheduled for a final vote in that legislative body this week.

Rucker, the sponsor, said the bill wasn’t a reaction to the two recent teachers strikes. She said the bill puts disciplinary procedures in place, and makes sure teachers know strikes are illegal. 

“Most educators would think that’s kind of insulting,” said Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia. 

“I believe most educators are well aware that we do not have collective bargaining in the state of West Virginia and were aware that those actions are considered illegal,” Albert said. “Although we feel we have a constitutional right to make our voices heard.”

Parent noted that in 2018, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican, issued a statement before the strike stating that it was illegal and his office would take action if requested. 

“Everybody knew it was illegal,” she said. 

The bill would require counties to withhold salary if a teacher participates in a strike, “which the Legislature hereby determines to be a ground for termination.”

“All of those things are possible now,” Rucker said. “That bill clarifies it and puts steps in place for the country superintendents [to follow.]”

‘Privatization schemes’

Two education researchers at West Virginia University, Erin McHenry-Sorber and Matthew Campbell, said lawmakers’ approach to teachers isn’t new. Even in prior years, they’ve focused more on recruiting teachers from other fields than on supporting teachers who have already decided the field is right for them. 

Thus far, those efforts have had “little to no effect” here, and are more successful in urban areas, said McHenry-Sorber, higher education programs coordinator at West Virginia University and co-editor of The Rural Educator journal.  

She said that areas with the fewest teachers also tend to have the fewest people with bachelor’s degrees, so there isn’t a ready workforce to replace teachers — and that becomes a bigger problem as the state population continues to decline.

“A real practical problem is who’s doing the teaching at charter schools,” she said. “We have a serious critical teacher shortage. It’s not like we have an excess of qualified teachers who are waiting for new schools and classrooms to open up.”

Teachers who take alternative pathways to certification, like that being promoted in the Legislature now, are particularly likely to quit, added Campbell, an assistant professor of mathematics education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction/Literacy Studies at WVU.

“And of the people who do qualify and pursue that pathway, they are so undersupported and underprepared that they leave the profession,” he said. 

The two researchers have spoken to principals and superintendents across the state about teachers leaving the field.

McHenry-Sorber said superintendents and principals in particular are just “increasingly desperate because what the state has done has not worked for the majority of schools.”

The researchers said the state used to fund a teacher mentoring program that was cut in recent years. Local programs can still implement those types of programs, they said, but more populated areas are better equipped to provide training for mentors and stipends.

“And so, we are seeing principals doing things like using personal relationships, making phone calls to people they know, to get them to apply for a position,” McHenry-Sorber said.

McHenry-Sorber said during the 2019 debate that she would like to see lawmakers focus on improving infrastructure and alleviating poverty, a huge source of problems in public schools.

“State privatization schemes do nothing to boost teacher morale and end up really frustrating existing teachers,” she said.

As the debate drags on, teachers continue to leave

Vera Miller, a teacher of 20 years and president of the Cabell County Education Association, said she saw more colleagues choosing to leave the field or retire after the first teachers strike. More chose to retire over health concerns during the pandemic.

Miller, who teaches music at Milton Elementary School, said this week she also plans to leave the profession.

Vera Miller (far right) with other educators during the 2019 teachers’ strike. Photo courtesy Vera Miller.

“It’s like I can go out right now, get another job, make more money, have less responsibility and have more respect,” she said.

She said teachers feel micromanaged by lawmakers and the state school board. They dictate teaching standards. They dictate curriculum. 

Teachers at the Capitol in 2018. Perry Casto is the center. Photo courtesy Parry Casto.

But Miller, who ran as a Republican for the House of Delegates in 2018, said she won’t seek work at a charter school.

“This is what I say about charter schools,” she said. “Why can’t every school be a charter school? If less regulation is key, why do we keep adding more regulation?”

She is tired — but that doesn’t mean she’s lost energy.

“If you put me in the classroom with just the kids, I’m happy as a lark,” she said. “We’re fine.

But it’s everything else.”

Parry Casto, who led chants at teacher strikes while dressed as Uncle Sam, has chosen to keep teaching in Cabell County.

But it’s been a rough few years, he said. “Teachers overwhelmingly are tired of the persistently sad fight to preserve public education for our students, all students in West Virginia.

“We’re beat down,” he said. “We’re demoralized. I just wish that we could have built on those gains and secured a more progressive approach and movement in West Virginia, especially regarding education. But sadly, that wasn’t the case.”

Erin Beck is Mountain State Spotlight's Community Watchdog Reporter.