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West Virginia Teachers' Strike for Higher Pay Has Shut Down Schools Across State

West-Virginia-Teacher-Strike-600.jpg

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A massive two-day teacher strike in West Virginia has shut down public schools across the state, as educators call for higher wages and better benefits. 

All 55 counties in the state have closed down schools due to the walkout, which started this morning. In West Virginia, this strike—the first in 30 years—is illegal, but that hasn't stopped hundreds of teachers from heading to the state Capitol to protest.

West Virginia's teachers salaries are among the lowest in the nation. According to the West Virginia Education Association, a new teacher with only a bachelor's degree will have a minimum starting salary of about $32,700. Teachers have called upon the state legislature to fund both pay raises and the public employee's health care program.

The 2018-19 benefits plan for public employees would have increased health care premiums on some insurees, mostly due to a provision using total family income to set premiums for family and employee and spouse coverage, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. 

The rising insurance costs combined with years of no pay raises spurred a massive protest at the state capitol earlier this month, and the next day, union members voted to authorize a statewide strike. 

Late last night, the state's Republican governor, Jim Justice, signed legislation that will give teachers a 2 percent pay increase starting in July, followed by an additional 1 percent hike in each of the next two fiscal years. 

"We certainly recognize our teachers are underpaid and this is a step in the right direction to addressing their pay issue," Justice said in a statement. 

At the governor's request, the board of the public employee's health care program voted to freeze the controversial benefits plan for a year.

Still, the state teachers' unions have said the pay raise is not enough. 

"Teachers and service professionals are tired of being told 'wait 'til next year,'" Dale Lee, the president of the West Virginia Education Association, told West Virginia Public Broadcasting. "There's still a tremendous amount of anger and frustration."

An Illegal Work Stoppage

According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, in 1990, West Virginia's attorney general wrote in an official opinion that teacher strikes and "concerted work stoppages" are illegal, and that teachers could be punished by being denied pay, suspended, fired, barred from teaching in a public school for a year, charged with a criminal misdemeanor, or even fined or jailed if they do not comply with a court injunction ordering them to return to work. 

In a statement, Patrick Morrisey, the state's current attorney general, said his office would assist and support any state agency, county board of education, or superintendent as they enforce the law.

"Any such action would be consistent with my duty as attorney general to uphold the rule of law and designed so as to ensure our students have access to the education they are entitled to by our state's constitution," he said. "Breaking the law does not set a good example for our children."

State schools superintendent Steve Paine also called the statewide strike unlawful, saying in a statement that it "will have a negative impact on student instruction and classroom time." 

Teachers' unions have lawyers prepared to defend teachers against any consequences that might arise from the strike, the Gazette-Mail reports. 

Union officials have said that this work stoppage is the result of years of frustration from educators, who want their voices heard by state legislators.

"The crisis in public education in this state has come to a head, and teachers and service personnel have reached their breaking point," said Christine Campbell, the president of the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement.

UPDATE 2/23: The unions announced this afternoon that teachers will not be returning to work on Monday, Feb. 26. According to a statement from AFT-West Virginia, West Virginia Education Association, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, "We continue to await legislative action to satisfy the needs of education employees so they may return to the schools and continue to provide quality education to the children of our State. Our members have spoken and the Legislature has not. As a result, the education employees are not prepared to go back to work yet."

Image: Jennifer Hanner, a first-year teacher from Harts, W.Va., center, joins other striking teachers as they demonstrate outside the state Senate chambers at the Capitol on Feb. 22. Teachers statewide went on strike Thursday over pay and benefits. --John Raby/AP

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