CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA – West Virginia’s striking teachers cheered, sang and wept joyfully Tuesday as lawmakers acted to end a nine-day classroom walkout, ceding them 5 percent pay hikes that are also being extended to all state workers.
A huge crowd of teachers packing the Capitol jumped up and down, chanted “We love our kids!” and singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Some even wept for joy. The settlement came on the ninth day of a crippling strike that idled hundreds of thousands of students, forced parents to scramble for child care and cast a spotlight on government dysfunction in one of the poorest states in the country.
Officials from several of the state’s 55 county school systems said they planned to reopen as soon as Wednesday, but union leaders had not yet declared the strike officially over. A spokeswoman from the Department of Education did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The West Virginia teachers, some of the lowest-paid in the nation, had gone without a salary increase for four years. They appeared to have strong public backing throughout their walkout.
“We overcame, we overcame!” exclaimed one teacher, Danielle Harris, calling it a victory for students as well. “It shows them how democracy is supposed to work, that you don’t just bow down and lay down for anybody. They got the best lesson that they could ever have even though they were out of school.”
Tuesday marked the ninth day of canceled classes for the school system’s 277,000 students and 35,000 employees. Teachers walked off the job Feb. 22, balking at an initial bill signed by Gov. Jim Justice to raise their pay 2 percent in the first year as they also complained about rising health insurance costs. Justice responded last week with an offer to raise teacher pay 5 percent — a proposal the House approved swiftly but that senators weren’t so eager to sign off on. Instead the Senate countered with an offer of 4 percent on Saturday, prompting leaders of all three unions representing the state’s teachers to announce that they would extend their walkout.
After a six-member conference committee agreed Tuesday to the new proposal, the House of Delegates subsequently passed 5 percent raises for teachers, school service personnel and state troopers on a 99-0 vote. The Senate followed, voting 34-0.
At a news conference after Tuesday’s vote, Justice declared victory.
“Today is a new day for education in West Virginia. No more looking back!” he proclaimed, surrounded by jubilant education leaders. “We really have to move away from the idea that education is just some necessary evil that has to be funded … toward … looking at our children and our teachers and education as an investment … That’s all there is to it.”
Missed school days will be made up, either at the end of the school year or by shortening spring break, depending on decisions by individual counties. Justice said that would not mean families would go without their summer vacations, however.
Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair said to pay for the raises, lawmakers will seek to cut state spending by $20 million, taking funds from general government services and Medicaid. Other state workers who also would get 5 percent raises under the deal will have to wait for a budget bill to pass.
Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, a Republican, said talks with the governor’s office lasted into early Tuesday identifying cuts everyone could agree to.
“These are deep cuts,” Blair said. “This has been the fiscally responsible thing to do, in my opinion, to get us to the point we’re at today.”
Justice said additional budget cuts by his staff will fund the raises, but he insisted in response to a question at the news conference that there would be no damaging cuts to Medicaid or programs that help the poor.
Erick Burgess, a teacher from Mercer County, said he was pleased with the salary increase and hoped the teachers’ actions in West Virginia would inspire educators elsewhere.
“Teachers seem to be mistreated throughout the country, so we are hoping other teachers and other public employees step up and tell their government they have had enough,” he said.