STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

The West Virginia teachers have launched a movement

For many rural people and places across the country, a school serves as the heart of the community. When companies th...

Posted: Mar 6, 2018 4:53 PM
Updated: Mar 6, 2018 4:53 PM

For many rural people and places across the country, a school serves as the heart of the community. When companies that have anchored towns such as Welch, West Virginia, shutter their doors, the local school can be the last bastion of communal identity.

As we have witnessed through the West Virginia strike that captured national news, teachers recognize the central role of the local school, which, for example, serves meals to children reliant on free breakfasts and lunches. Communities, in turn, have supported the teachers' protests. There is sense among West Virginians that this strike is about something bigger than teacher pay -- this is a movement for the viability of West Virginia and rural America.

Typically a voiceless group in state policymaking, teachers across West Virginia have leveraged, over the last two weeks, their scant numbers (less than 22,000) to fight for increased pay, stabilization of benefits and the maintenance of high standards for teacher credentialing. In an impressive show of force and solidarity, they effectively staged a strike that includes three unions and all 55 countywide school districts in the state.

When state union leaders urged teachers to go back to work last week, they refused. With unions in the southern coalfields leading the charge, teachers returned to the picket lines. After nine school days of protest, it appears the teachers have won, at least in terms of a pay raise, with West Virginia lawmakers agreeing to a 5% pay increase for all state employees. Gov. Jim Justice signed the bill raising pay for teachers and public employees into law Tuesday, calling it a "good day," and union leaders said that once that happened, teachers would return to work Wednesday

To outsiders, these bold union actions may be surprising. But in hindsight, the West Virginia teacher strike seemed inevitable. In a state where union activist Mother Jones brought militancy to mine workers, the Republican-controlled Legislature has continually eroded the rights of unionized workers, most recently through right-to-work legislation passed in 2016.

At the same time, rural communities across the state, particularly those once dependent on industries such as coal, have experienced a protracted state of economic depression and increased poverty and opioid addiction -- a consequence of Americans' willingness to accept West Virginia as one of the nation's economic sacrifice zones. (Such sacrifice zones are those places deemed worthy of sacrifice, through environmental and economic degradation, to provide the broader public with natural resources.)

In the midst of economic stagnation and diminished workers' rights, these rural West Virginians find themselves marginalized economically and socially, pushing back against normalized epithets of "hillbillies" and "rednecks," at the same time they're fighting for their economic survival.

Decades of low pay and the devaluing of the teaching profession have resulted in mass teacher shortages nationwide. Poor and geographically isolated rural districts have historically struggled to recruit and retain qualified teachers. It is in these places where the teacher shortage is most acutely felt.

In the predominately rural state of West Virginia, where average teacher pay ranks 48th nationwide, teacher vacancies have increased significantly, from about 400 in 2015 to more than 700 today, with projections of 1,000-plus in coming years. (A recent West Virginia Department of Education report showed, for example, that almost 40% of high school math courses are now taught by "non-fully certified teachers.")

To attribute the teacher shortage to issues of pay alone oversimplifies this complex problem, but low pay, experts agree, certainly doesn't help, particularly around West Virginia's border counties, where prospective teachers are tempted by average starting salaries that can be more than $10,000 greater in neighboring states.

The effects of the state's failure to invest in its educational system are far-reaching. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, West Virginia now ranks 51st, behind all 50 states and the District for Columbia, in the percentage of women with bachelor's degrees, with fewer than one in five over the age of 25 holding the credential. Given that about 75% of teachers are women nationwide and in West Virginia, this lack of investment in the educational pipeline appears to have a stranglehold on the state's ability to influence its own future positively.

Emboldened by support from district leaders and students and the absence of potential replacements (thanks to the teacher shortage), teachers' new sense of empowerment appears to be setting a precedent for other rural state unions to take action.

Few states can boast teacher salaries lower than West Virginia. Oklahoma is one of them. Like West Virginia, Oklahoma is a predominantly rural state. Just this year, thousands of teachers across the state indicated that increased pay was essential in combating the state's teacher shortage problem, which like West Virginia, has reached a level of crisis. At the same time, their state issued a record number of emergency certifications as a band-aid to the problem. Sound familiar?

Perhaps West Virginia teachers have started a movement that can stretch beyond the bounds of Appalachia -- a grass-roots campaign with growing public support to save not just their profession, but the rural youth and communities their profession serves.

West Lafayette
Clear
71° wxIcon
Hi: 94° Lo: 71°
Feels Like: 71°
Kokomo
Clear
70° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 70°
Rensselaer
Clear
66° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 66°
Fowler
Clear
66° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 66°
Williamsport
Clear
71° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 71°
Crawfordsville
Clear
67° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 71°
Feels Like: 67°
Frankfort
Overcast
72° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 71°
Feels Like: 72°
Delphi
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 93° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 72°
Monticello
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 93° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 72°
Logansport
Clear
70° wxIcon
Hi: 93° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 70°
WLFI Radar
WLFI Temps
WLFI Planner

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 47432

Reported Deaths: 2687
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion11546683
Lake5104242
Elkhart321144
Allen2737129
St. Joseph190866
Cass16389
Hamilton1538100
Hendricks1390100
Johnson1256118
Porter72037
Tippecanoe6948
Madison65564
Clark64044
Bartholomew58244
Howard56557
LaPorte56326
Kosciusko5354
Vanderburgh5026
Marshall4823
Jackson4693
Noble46928
LaGrange4677
Hancock44035
Boone43743
Delaware43150
Shelby42325
Floyd37144
Morgan32731
Montgomery29320
Grant29126
Clinton2882
Monroe27628
Dubois2666
White26010
Henry25815
Decatur24932
Lawrence24225
Vigo2318
Dearborn22823
Harrison21222
Warrick21229
Greene18532
Miami1822
Jennings17411
Putnam1688
DeKalb1604
Scott1607
Daviess14216
Orange13623
Wayne1366
Steuben1282
Perry1279
Franklin1248
Ripley1157
Jasper1142
Wabash1122
Carroll1102
Fayette987
Newton9810
Starke923
Whitley905
Randolph784
Huntington742
Jefferson722
Wells711
Fulton691
Jay680
Washington681
Gibson672
Knox640
Pulaski641
Clay604
Rush563
Adams501
Benton480
Owen471
Sullivan441
Brown381
Posey380
Blackford372
Spencer371
Crawford300
Fountain302
Tipton301
Switzerland260
Martin220
Parke220
Ohio140
Vermillion140
Warren141
Union130
Pike100
Unassigned0193

COVID-19 Important links and resources

As the spread of COVID-19, or as it's more commonly known as the coronavirus continues, this page will serve as your one-stop for the resources you need to stay informed and to keep you and your family safe. CLICK HERE

Closings related to the prevention of the COVID-19 can be found on our Closings page.

Community Events