A civics lesson from West Virginia

Fairness doesn’t always come easy. That means democracy sometimes looks like a picket sign and a rally on the capitol steps. The brave educators of West Virginia are patriots, and they’re giving their students the civics lesson of a lifetime.

After waiting for hours to get through the single metal detector at the door of the state capitol building in Charleston, West Virginia, thousands of educators, parents, advocates and just plain old community-loving neighbors lined the halls, stairwells, rotunda and doorways to let their voices ring through the rafters.

Lily with teachers

After years of going backwards in pay because of the astronomical costs of rising health care (some teachers and support professionals take an extra job or two just to be able to afford to BE educators), these courageous men and women decided to take a stand. They decided to demand elected officials do something about the shamefully poor pay and pathetically inadequate health benefits that have caused a serious teacher shortage and dangerously high turnover among education support professionals.

Students are often deprived of the caring, qualified school staff they need because hundreds of positions go unfilled. Educators love what we do because there’s nothing better than connecting with students and unlocking their potential. But in West Virginia, the pay and benefits are simply too inadequate to allow educators to do what they love and make a decent enough living to care for their own families.

It took some time to get there, but finally the governor and other political leaders in both parties negotiated with our union representatives and struck a deal. It’s not perfect, but it was made in good faith and it is fiscally responsible: a 5 percent raise and a task force to find a long-term solution to better health insurance that won’t eat through a paycheck.

Lily with educators in West Virginia

The Governor gave it a thumbs-up. Members of the House of Representatives, who on any given day can’t agree if the sun is shining, passed it with only one “no” vote. Then it was up to the Senate. And the promised deal that could have opened schools once more and shown an appreciation for the sacrifice of hard-working educators found its way into the hands of 19 politicians who decided it was more important to play politics with the lives of students, families, teachers and support staff.

Nineteen politicians who, coincidentally, were not supported by educators in their last campaigns voted no. In what appears to be a blatant act of political revenge, they voted not to honor the agreement.

I walked the Charleston capitol and hugged so many courageous educators. I shook hands with a superintendent who told me that he was proud of how educators were standing together. A mom told me she brought her daughter and wanted her to see what it looked like to stand up for what was right. I saw tears but I saw laughter and I saw determination and I saw fearlessness and strength of purpose.

I am so proud of our colleagues in West Virginia. I am so inspired by their message: They love their students too much to allow the devaluing and disrespect of educators to continue. I am so inspired by their decision to take a stand and call out those with the power to change this situation who don’t. Those 19 senators put politics above students.

But it’s not too late. They can still do the right thing. That’s entirely in their hands. But whether or not they do, there is no doubt in my mind that the educators, parents and neighbors who showed up and stood up and let their voice be heard have taught us all a lesson. We elect representatives to work for us and the betterment of our communities. But when they fail to represent us and they only represent their own interests, it’s up to us to look them in the eye and speak the truth as loudly as we can for as long as we have to.

We’re proud of you, West Virginia. Thank you for your service.


One Response to “A civics lesson from West Virginia”

  1. Sally lord

    Congratulations West Virginia. You truly deserve the highest praise for standing so tall. I am a retired California teacher who is active in two retired teachers groups in Northern California. (Chico,Butte County). Tears came to my eyes when I saw one of your leaders with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now. Way to go. Thank you for your work. Soooo proud of you all. Sally Lord. Go Oaklahoma.


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