Leaders from several of West Virginia’s largest teacher unions had sharp criticism for bills under consideration in the state legislature. They voiced their concerns to the state Board of Education on Wednesday.
“Our educators have worked harder in this pandemic year than anyone could have ever asked,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Educators Association and a special education teacher at Princeton High School. “They’ve worked harder and reached out to more children than anybody could have imagined. Our educators are heroes and they’re being treated with such disrespect. It’s shameful.”
The legislature passed legislation last week to expand charter schools. It is considering bills that would create publicly funded education savings accounts as well as a constitutional amendment to give lawmakers additional oversight on the state Board of Education.
“Folks, we’re under attack,” Lee said.
He called public education the “last equalizer” in society and questioned the decisions of state legislators this session.
The union leaders said they have gotten some positive feedback from teachers regarding the return to five-day a week, in-person instruction, a decision made by the state Board of Education last month.
David Gladkosky, president of the West Virginia Professional Educators, said the organization has heard from members who are happy to be back in the classroom with some lingering issues regarding mask wearing compliance and absentee students in middle schools.
While the return to the classroom has gone well, Gladkosky and other union leaders said teachers fear the financial repercussions of bills in the legislature, specifically a proposal to invest public funds into education savings accounts.
The bill known as the “Hope Scholarship Program” is currently under consideration by the Senate after passing the lower chamber and would create $4,600 vouchers per student for private and homeschool students. Republican advocates for the bill have said it will increase opportunities for students who would not otherwise be able to afford private school or homeschool.
“It gives hope maybe to some, but not to necessarily those who desperately need some hope,” said Fred Albert, president of the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “We get hope every day in public education. I get a little bit tired of hearing, ‘Parents need choice.’ They’ve always had choice.”
Albert said parents currently have the option to homeschool or enroll their students in private schools.
“I just hate to see our public education suffer any additional pandemic or financial erosion, because we can’t afford that,” he said.
An analysis from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy last month estimated $119 million in public education funding could be reduced by a slew of legislative proposals under consideration.
The center estimated the cost of the ESA program at a minimum of $24 million and higher costs possible depending on the number of applicants. Changes to the natural gas and business manufacturing taxes could also take millions of dollars from schools, according to the center.
Albert said on Wednesday that the pandemic has forced teachers to work harder than ever before and the recent actions of the legislature have created additional pressure.
“I can tell you that our school teachers and employees feel under attack and they’re wondering why,” he said.