School choice is dead in the state of West Virginia, at least for now. That’s the main takeaway after state lawmakers in the Republican-controlled legislature buckled to demands from teachers’ unions after two days of striking earlier this week.
It’s not surprising that teachers’ unions banded together to kill a school choice proposal. What is surprising is how much West Virginia teachers were willing to sacrifice to keep even the smallest market-oriented innovations out of the state’s education system.
The massive education reform bill contained a five percent teacher pay raise, on top of the pay raise that the state’s educators got out of last year’s teacher strike. It also included a $2,000 bonus for certified math teachers, a $250 tax credit for school supply purchases, and around $145 million in total investment in the state’s public education system.
So what did the pro-government monopoly crowd take issue with? The bill also provided for the creation of seven (as in fewer than 10) public charter schools statewide and the creation of 1,000 Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) for children with special needs or who had undergone documented cases of bullying.
Yes. That’s all. That’s why one union boss claimed that West Virginia educators were “left no other choice” but to strike. It’s why schools across the state closed down for two straight days. That’s what was worth passing up a pay raise, bonuses, and all the other investments that lawmakers were willing to put into the state’s public schools.
Seven Charter schools and 1,000 ESAs. That’s what made it a “dangerous education privatization bill” that had to be defeated at the cost of public education investment. But hey, any market-oriented innovations mean competition, and the best way to protect a monopoly racket is to make sure competition never makes it to market.
“The defenders of the status quo, the enemies of progress, won, and the losers were the teachers, students, parents in West Virginia,” Republican West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael told Blaze Media just hours after the bill was scuttled on Tuesday, “by not accepting the reforms and the massive investment in public education in West Virginia.”
“It makes no sense,” Carmichael said when asked why public teachers’ unions would be opposed to that kind of investment. “It’s not a logical analysis of the provisions of the bill. It’s more a fearmongering by the union bosses.”
“This is a way to flex political muscle,” explains Garrett Ballengee, executive director of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, a think tank that supported the reforms.
The point school choice opponents made, he says, was that “to some extent, at least as it relates to education policy, that education unions will dictate what kind of education policy that we have,” despite the Republican control of West Virginia’s House, Senate, and governorship.
“Extortion is a strong word,” he added, “but if the definition fits, I think that’s exactly what we saw here.”
According to national school choice organization EdChoice, West Virginia is one of a remaining handful of states in the U.S. that doesn’t have a single educational choice program of any kind. Meanwhile, the state’s public education numbers were near the bottom for 2018.
“We want to do what other states have done to implement positive change,” Carmichael told me, noting the success of the charter school movement in other states. If a football team were coming in last in its conference every year, “you’d change something,” he continued. “And yet we tolerate a last-place finish in our education system.”