Our new issue is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

In West Virginia’s Education Wars, “We Can’t Play Nice”

Nicole McCormick

Yet again in West Virginia, Republicans are seeking to privatize schools and stop teachers strikes. A West Virginia teacher explains how educators are yet again mobilizing to stop it — and why "there's nothing to compromise on."

Getty

Interview by
Eric Blanc

A new battle in West Virginia’s education wars began last Saturday. Hoping to reverse the mass movement that won statewide strikes in February-March 2018 and February 2019, Republican legislators have called a special legislative session to impose school privatization and to further criminalize striking. West Virginia school employees have again turned to mobilizing at the capitol and momentum towards further escalating actions is growing.

Though the Republicans’ “Student Success Act” passed in the Senate on Monday, it could still be killed in the House or through a veto by the governor. To assess the struggle, Eric Blanc, author of Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics, spoke with Nicole McCormick, a music teacher, president of the Mercer County Education Association, and member of the WV United Caucus.


EB

What’s in the “Student Success Act” that the Republican state Senate passed yesterday?

NM

This bill would allow for the introduction into West Virginia of charter schools and education saving accounts (ESAs), which provide public funds for parents to pay for private schools. And we know by looking across the country how much of a disaster privatization would be for students and well as teachers and especially for support staff (since charters can contract their jobs out, in order to get the cheapest labor possible). This Act would mean draining funds from public schools and hurting West Virginian children.

This is essentially the same omnibus bill we defeated through our strike just a few months ago — except with even more harsh language introduced to it. Public-sector strikes are already illegal in our state, but yesterday State Senator Charles Trump introduced language making punishments for striking more explicitly defined. Not only could we be fired or docked our pay, but the bill says county superintendents don’t have right to close schools if there’s a work stoppage, even if keeping them open without staff poses a health and safety danger for students.

Obviously, this is meant to scare us and to control us. And there are a whole number of other bad parts in the Act, including rolling back seniority rights and raising the cap on class size.

EB

Senate Republicans are claiming West Virginians want these changes to the schools.

NM

They’re lying. Who are they talking to? The state held public town halls all across West Virginia, and 88 percent of those in the forums — most participants weren’t even school employees — said they didn’t want charters or ESAs.

It’s infuriating. I’m seething. I’m so angry, especially because it’s clear that West Virginians don’t want this. This is being pushed by eighteen Republican senators on behalf of their corporate donors. These senators will not listen to anything — they’re condescending, cruel, and rude.

We’re talking about individuals like Senate leader Mitch Carmichael, who is a pure villain. We’re talking about Patricia Rucker, who is the chair of ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council, a hyper-conservative Koch-funded corporate legislation mill] in West Virginia. And we’re talking about Rollan Roberts, who heads a private religious school, so he’d directly financially benefit from the introduction of ESAs.

EB

What’s your response when politicians say that charter schools are the only solution for West Virginia?

NM

These people don’t know anything about public schools, or even charters for that matter. They’re throwing out numbers from ALEC that aren’t based in reality.

They say that public schools in West Virginia are failing, but that’s a lie. We’re doing wonderful, amazing things in our public schools that we should be proud of. Our schools aren’t failing and, in any case, charters are not any solution for the problems that we do have.

Look at Vermont, which has similar demographics as our state. They don’t have charters, and they rank near the top in education. What’s the secret of success for their schools? Small class sizes and strong rights for educators. They have strong unions and they get paid a decent salary — not amazing, but decent.

The big difference between us and Vermont is that we’re a lot poorer. We have the opioid crisis and the unemployment crisis, and of course this is going to impact our schools and our students. West Virginia has more grandparents raising children than anywhere else in the nation.

So to actually improve public education, we need more funding and smaller class sizes so that we can give enough care to every single student. We need stronger unions — not more intimidation against our right to withhold our labor — so we can retain great teachers in our state. And we need to give parents better health care, quality jobs, and the rest so that our students can get all the emotional and financial support they need.

Privatization is being pushed from the outside by billionaires through groups like Americans for Prosperity. It’s no surprise that Betsy DeVos is actively supporting the Act. This is all about power and money. West Virginia has been a resource colony for our entire existence. And now the resource out-of-state corporations want to tap is our children: they want to profit off of our kids by taking over our schools.

EB

I also get the impression that they want to roll back the movement in West Virginia because you all have continued to inspire educators across the country to fight back and strike.

NM

Definitely. This is about stopping our movement not just in West Virginia, but also nationwide. If they can squash us here, it’s possible that other states could fall like dominoes.

That’s why it’s so important right now to be militant, to be courageous. There’s no need to compromise with these folks. And there’s nothing to compromise on. We’re doing everything possible to inform our people, to give them confidence, to make it clear that we’re right to say No.

It’s great that all three unions are now saying no to the introduction of any charters. There was some talk that some of the Democrats were willing to compromise on charters if the anti-strike language of the act was taken out. But our unions held the line and successfully pressured them not accept this.

EB

What’s the mood on the ground right now?

NM

We thought we had already won this — we walked out in February and defeated this bill in one day. But the privatizers are relentless, and they’ve waited until summertime, when we don’t have the possibility to strike. Educators are tired, not only because we already fought this battle, but because it’s the end of the school year. Even without all these attacks, many people are wiped out by this time of the year.

But the West Virginia Public Employees United page [on Facebook] is increasingly active, and people are engaged. We’ve had good crowds at the capitol. Folks are tired, but they want to fight back and win.

Before the 2018 strike, it was different. There were only about fifteen to twenty of us across the state who would engage. Because of our successful strikes, there’s definitely been a renewal here. Now you have people who may never come to union meeting, but who are ready to walk on a picket line. In forums or meetings, there are all sorts of people who now come forward to ask a question or raise an idea.

And our folks are angry. When you’re constantly attacked by billionaires like Betsy DeVos and these senators, it’s hard not to get angry. I’m hopeful because folks here now have what I call “Mingo County syndrome,” this idea that “we’ve led the way, so we can’t back down now.” Educators are proud of what we’ve achieved. West Virginians are used to being the butt of jokes; now we want to keep on pointing the way forward for working people across the United States. We want to say that we beat them not once, not twice, but three times.

I wrote a short blog piece called “Hold My Pepperoni Roll” where I made a case for why we have this opportunity and responsibility to stop something truly destructive. The bill passed in the Senate, but we have a much better chance of defeating it in the House, which has always been more susceptible to our pressure. The House is going back into session on June 17, so we have a bit of time to get more organized and mobilized. We’re going to continue reaching out to our co-workers, our community, and other labor unions in West Virginia.

This Sunday, all union presidents, from all counties and from all education unions, are meeting to come up with a plan of action. We can’t play nice, we can’t say we’ll accept any version of privatization or any further penalization of our right to strike. Hell no. This isn’t just about us, it’s about our children. We’re the protectors of their future.

EB

How can educators and allies across the country show their support?

NM

Keep sharing the news about our struggle via social media. We need your solidarity so that educators here can keep on fighting — and fighting hard. It could be a solidarity photo, a comment on Facebook, or a video testimony that we could share about what it’s like to live or work in a place where charters have taken over. These testimonies make it real: our personal stories are much more than just data on a chart.

And it means so much to us to get messages from everywhere telling us “We’re with you. Don’t give up, you started this!” It helps us stay the course to know that folks appreciate what we’ve done and what we’re capable of doing.