West Virginia's teachers striking for the fourth day over low pay and rising health insurance costs say state legislators are failing to learn their civics lessons, which may have to be driven home at the ballot box in November.
All 100 seats in the House and half of the 34 Senate seats will be on the fall ballot. Both chambers are controlled by majority Republicans, who have advanced a pro-business agenda against higher taxes and for limiting government spending and regulation, similar to the Trump administration and Republican-controlled U.S. Congress.
Teachers are paying close attention to the specific actions of each legislator, regardless of party, and will vote accordingly, several of them say. They say it's an unlearned lesson that has had consequences for the state's children, already facing more than 700 classrooms staffed by uncertified substitutes.
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"If the Legislature continues to not listen to our pleas and our cries for help, as I teach my students on a daily basis, your vote does matter," said Phil Caskey, who teaches social studies at University High School in Morgantown. "And I think there's enough fire in the state right now, a lot of people will do their best to vote out incumbents and create some change back in this state."
Caskey was among more than 150 people, many of them teachers, who attended one of Gov. Jim Justice's three town hall meetings Monday at high schools in northern West Virginia. The crowd cheered colleagues' comments for better state commitments to public education. One teacher estimated that all public workers, similarly squeezed, and their families constitute about one-third of West Virginians and will turn out to vote.
In Charleston, Justice and union leaders were meeting Tuesday to try to bring about a resolution to the strike. During a break in the negotiations, American Federation of Teachers' West Virginia chapter President Christine Campbell and West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said the talks were productive and would continue.
During his town hall meetings Monday, Justice spoke and responded to questions and criticism for more than two hours while occasionally being heckled. He said he was on their side and got a smattering of polite applause. He opposes charter schools and pending legislative proposals to remove teacher seniority rights and union payroll deductions and to authorize uncertified teachers, he said.
"One of the big things that's happening now is we're beginning to educate ourselves not only on what's going on in our situation but what's happening with the government in general, like finding out our Legislature is ranked fifth in the nation in pay and as a part-time Legislature," said Angel Conley, a middle-school teacher in Morgantown. "So we're having issues with the fact that they're on the higher end of the scale and we're on the lower."
As educated professionals, whose pay ranks among the lowest in the nation, they said they're already squeezed financially despite past promises that starting pay would rise to $43,000 by 2019. Conley said pay ranges from $33,000 up to $60,000 for 30 years' experience with a Ph.D.
The legislators are paid a $20,000 base for a two-month session and can claim $131 per diems for expenses.
Justice said Monday he's appointing a task force to look into the education issues, and he agrees that teachers are underpaid but the 2 percent raise for next year that he signed into law is all he thinks the state can support until it sees more financial data in a year about its economic recovery. He urged them to lobby for increasing the severance tax on growing natural gas production as a permanent funding source for the insurance program used by them and other public workers.