What is teachers’ strike really about?
The public school teachers of West Virginia reside in one of the country’s five lowest-paying states for teachers. Our teachers were offered a 1 percent pay raise while at the same time the overall costs of their health insurance, or PEIA, would go up, causing them to have less money in the end.
Backed by their union, the teachers requested a long-overdue 5 percent raise with no change in PEIA. Governor Jim Justice finally agreed to these terms, as did 98 percent of the West Virginia House of Delegates. When it came to the state Senators, however, they chose to skip out early on Feb. 28. That Thursday, the senate declined to follow the house’s lead in passing the new bill and instead sent it to be stalled in the finance committee.
In contrast, our state legislature is the fifth-highest-paid in the country. In their six-week session, they get paid half of what teachers get in one year. Senator Carmichael, president of the state Senate, said he didn’t know how the state can fund the teacher pay raise. Let’s look at some of the West Virginia money and how other states fund their education.
A severance tax is imposed on the privilege of extracting gas, oil and other natural resources within the state. Some states use this severance tax to pay public employees such as teachers. The severance tax in West Virginia is 5 percent and the national average is 8 percent. Alaska, which has the highest-paid teachers, is 35 percent. This makes sense – state resources used for the people of the state. Alaska also has a fuel fund that pays dividends to its state residents. How much financially better off we would be in West Virginia if the people of West Virginia had been receiving dividends from coal, gas and oil?
What has happened in West Virginia? Our state elected officials essentially have deals with the oil and gas companies to keep the severance tax low, keep safety standards at a minimum and have minimal, if any, requirement for reparation for environmental damage… all this in exchange for money to help them get reelected. This practice harms the people of West Virginia in many ways, with teachers’ and troopers’ salaries being only one example.
West Virginia gas companies wined and dined our elected officials before voting on laws governing the state’s gas and oil. As an example, lobbyists for EQT, the biggest natural gas producer in the country, took senators Patricia Rucker and Charles Trump, and delegates Riley Moore and Jill Upson, out to lunch at a neo-Georgian mansion on Jan. 24, 2017. Illegal? No! Unethical? It certainly shows how politics in West Virginia work. Many call it “legalized corruption.”
Paying teachers a living wage is really a matter of priorities and values. This brings us closer to the heart of the issue, which is how much, or little, public education is valued-in West Virginia specifically, and this country in general. Betsy DeVos was appointed by President Trump to his cabinet as the Secretary of Education in February 2017. She has been a supporter of school choice and voucher programs, which take money away from public education. She also rewrote rights for school civil rights probes, weakening civil right protections in the schools.
In West Virginia, some legislators like Senator Rucker supports giving tax breaks for private education. Do people who can afford private schools really need tax breaks? Many West Virginia teachers have to work two jobs to get by. Many purchase supplies from their own money to supplement what’s afforded to them in the state budget.
It has been too long since public education has been a priority in this state. Maybe our legislators don’t send their kids to public school, but most of us do. Who are our elected officials representing? It appears the answer is gas and oil, and their own personal interests.
One would think our administration would want to help all our children get well-educated so we can be successful as a country and compete in an ever-changing world. But their education policies seem to favor people like them-mostly wealthy, mostly white and mostly Republican.
In fact, I think that the heart of the matter is this: poorly educated, or uneducated, people can be better controlled. They won’t think for themselves, will either not vote or vote on one issue and, in so doing, vote against their other best interests.They won’t stand up against injustice. Working poor and middle class people are too busy surviving to pay much attention to what’s really going on behind our elected officials’ closed doors or in restaurants. It takes time and effort to find out which companies are contributing to whose campaigns and to what extent our Representatives are, or are not, really representing us.
Teaching is a noble profession and teaching our children is one of the most important jobs one can have. All children deserve to have equal, good quality education. I want to thank our teachers of West Virginia for remaining in this state to teach our children when they could be making more money with better benefits in neighboring states. I want to thank our teachers for uniting and standing up for what they deserve. I want to thank our teachers for their commitment to our precious children and their well deserved education.