Originally published in Capital and Main on May 25, 2021.
Three years ago in West Virginia, roughly 20,000 educators went on strike and shut down public schools across the state, protesting low pay and high health care costs. Their historic nine-day labor stoppage led to a 5% pay increase for teachers and school service personnel. Inspired by the success in West Virginia, strikes in states including Oklahoma, Colorado and California soon followed.
The uprising sparked a wave of national attention, and the future of teacher organizing seemed more promising than it had in years. Their movement even had a name: “Red for Ed” — which referenced the red clothing educators and their allies wore each time they took to the streets for public schools. A year later, West Virginia educators walked off the job again in an effort to defeat a bill permitting charter schools to operate in their state. This time their success was more limited; teachers watered down the legislation, but lawmakers still rammed a version through in a special session, authorizing three charters to open by July 2023, with potential for more after that.
Today, it’s school choice advocates who feel they have the momentum. Since the start of the year, two states that helped launch the national teacher uprising in 2018 — West Virginia and Kentucky — have passed some of the most expansive school choice policies in the country. And public education advocates in a third pivotal “Red for Ed” state, Arizona, have been fighting hard to stave off more voucher bills before the legislative session ends this month.
Following the 2020 election, West Virginia Republicans turned their majority into a supermajority. Emboldened by their new electoral strength, GOP lawmakers then pushed through a flurry of bills to expand school choice and weaken public sector unions, including a bill allowing much faster charter school growth and prohibiting automatic union dues deduction from paychecks.
In perhaps the biggest victory for West Virginia school choice proponents, Republican lawmakers created a new voucherlike program called an education savings account, or ESA, which reformers are hailing as the most sweeping of its kind in the nation. Ninety-four percent of students in West Virginia will be eligible to receive up to $4,600 annually to cover the cost of private school tuition or tutoring, summer school, special needs therapies and other education-related expenses.
In a webinar hosted earlier this month by EdChoice, a national libertarian education group, Garrett Ballengee, the executive director of conservative think tank the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, stressed that “it would be difficult to overstate the impact” of the new legislation. Five years ago West Virginia did not have charter schools or any form of private school choice. “Now [West Virginia is] the gold standard of education choice policy in the country,” he argued. “I’m somewhat speechless.”
* * *
“Something we’ve proven [is] that you can do an approach to policy advancement that is not incremental,” added Jason Huffman, the West Virginia state director of Americans for Prosperity. “You know we went from zero to 90 pretty quick in West Virginia, and I think the hope is that other states will look at that and think, ‘Well why can’t we also do that?’”
(They don’t have a lot to show for their efforts yet. Today no charter schools yet operate in West Virginia, though recent legislation would make it easier for charter operators to bypass local school board opposition by appealing to a new state board of governor appointees. The flurry of legislation would also allow virtual charter schools for the first time.)
Both teacher unions and education reformers acknowledge the election helped usher in the new policies, and that the pandemic made it harder for public school advocates to fight back as they had in past years.
“This wasn’t the first time they tried to push ESAs, but it’s called ‘elections have consequences,’” said Fred Albert, the president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia. (The federation is a financial supporter of Capital & Main). “And normally teachers would flood the Capitol, but we couldn’t go in because of COVID and didn’t have the option to be there.” Albert maintains the public still lacks an appetite for charters and that the new charter law will likely face legal challenge.
Republican state Sen. Patricia Rucker, who chairs the West Virginia Senate education committee and spearheaded the ESA legislation, agreed that this year was different because lawmakers were less nervous about backlash. “The teachers’ unions really put everything they had to try to un-elect those who pushed for education choice two years ago. I mean [unions poured] over $5 million in state races… to basically knock out all those who would have been votes for education choice, and not only did [unions] lose [but] they lost big,” she said in the webinar.
Rucker suggested she’s less inclined to negotiate with union allies going forward. “I was willing to make compromises two years ago…we actually had a limited ESA, and we kept through the legislative process limiting it a little bit more, a little bit more, just to try to get something through,” she said. “One of the things I learned from that is it does not buy you any votes from the opposition at all.”
* * *
Elections and the pandemic also changed education politics this year in Kentucky. Republican lawmakers recently overrode Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto of a bill authorizing a new tax credit scholarship program and requiring school districts to create open enrollment policies. To cover the cost, the bill will pull up to $25 million a year from state coffers, and opponents—which include school superintendents, administrators and teacher unions—warn that the legislation will divert funding from an already underfunded public education system. One analysis, from the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, predicted the bill will lead to “wasteful, inequitable use of public funds by private entities.”
Beshear has said the new program “will signal the end of public education as we know it.”
“I think the pandemic was a big factor in getting parents engaged,” said Heather Huddleston, the director of education policy at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, which supported the bill. “The makeup of our legislature also changed pretty dramatically in November.” Republicans already had a supermajority but increased it further; 75 out of 100 House members are now Republicans, as are 30 of 38 senators.
But it was actually a Kentucky Democrat, Rep. Al Gentry, who provided the needed final vote in the House to get the ESA bill through. While Gentry had not supported ESAs in the past, he said he heard so much from his constituents that he had to lend his backing. “I personally don’t like this bill,” Gentry said on the House floor. “I do not support many things in this bill. However, the majority of those who sent me here do support this bill. So I voted yes for them.” It passed by a razor-thin margin of 48-47.
Huddleston thinks “charter schools are going to be the next natural thing” for Kentucky, which currently has none. Kentucky became the 44th state to allow charter schools in 2017, but none have opened because the legislature has yet to approve permanent funding for the schools.
One significant development in Kentucky from the 2018 teacher uprising is the creation of permanent organizing infrastructure for grassroots educators, specifically KY120 United, a Facebook group that started during Red for Ed and was responsible for the state’s first wildcat strike. Less than two months ago, KY120 United formally affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, becoming an official union. “We created this union because we realized to be taken seriously in Frankfort, we needed to be a dues-paying organization,” said Jeni Bolander, a special education teacher. She pointed to being excluded from discussions between lawmakers and education groups around a recently approved pension reform bill that would limit retirement benefits for new teachers. “[They] started working on that bill in July  but we didn’t get invited to see the thing until December,” said Bolander.
Laura Hartke, a Lexington teacher and member of KY120 United, called the ESA bill “revenge” for their activism. “They forced us into buildings to teach and kept us out of the Capitol, and used the pandemic to ram it through,” she said.
Kentucky educators who are members of both the Kentucky Education Association and the nascent KY120 United say they’re gearing up to fight back against further cuts to public education and hope the new union will strengthen their collective efforts.
* * *
In Arizona, on a November 2018 ballot measure known as Prop 305, teachers and public education advocates successfully defeated a voucher law that would have allowed all 1.1 million Arizona K-12 students to use public funds for private school tuition and other education expenses. The measure died handily, with 65 percent of voters rejecting it. But the fight for more school choice bills has not relented in the Copper State, and education reformers argue that the defeat of ESAs in 2018 was not a real rejection of the policy.
“Prop. 305 was not a simple up-or-down vote on educational choice – despite the opponents’ spin,” said Jason Bedrick of the libertarian group EdChoice. He noted that even some education reform organizations opposed the ballot measure, which if passed would make Arizona’s 2017 law difficult to change later. Some local conservative school groups, like the Center for Arizona Policy, favored Prop. 305, but several prominent national groups, including EdChoice, declined to support it at the time. The American Federation of Children, the national school choice group formerly chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, even opposed the measure.
Dawn Penich-Thacker, a spokesperson for Save our Schools Arizona, which led the fight against Prop. 305, said the challenge is Arizona schools are so far behind other states that even the wins they’ve managed to achieve have done little to move the needle. “We won a 20% pay increase for our teachers in 2018, but our teachers are still the lowest paid in the nation,” she said. Arizona also has among the highest teacher turnover rates, the highest pupil-to-teacher ratios and the lowest in public school spending.
Penich-Thacker said advocates are working hard to defeat a new wave of privatization bills in the legislature and preparing for the next round of elections. Arizona voters consistently cite public education funding as their top issue.
“Educators are still so fired up,” Penich-Thacker added. In 2018 more than 100,000 educators and allies across Arizona participated in “walk-ins” to advocate for public education. “There was a bit of a dip in volunteer energy in 2019 and some of 2020, because everyone was really tired, but now everyone seems really motivated again,” she said.
Save our Schools Arizona is open to organizing future ballot initiatives if some of the currently proposed school choice bills pass this year. “We realize sometimes that’s the only way to get things done in Arizona,” said Penich-Thacker. “Nothing is drafted on paper yet, but we talk about it all the time.”
* * *
While the long-term impact of Red for Ed continues to be debated, there is reason to believe the protests fortified public esteem for educators, which likely helped them retain strong political support during the pandemic and a year of controversial school closures. “Before 2018, during Teacher Appreciation Week, parents would be like, ‘Get [teachers] a Starbucks card, of course they’re doing fine, they’re all college educated people,’” said Penich-Thacker. “Now it’s like, ‘Oh, you want to do something good for your teachers? Then call your legislator.’”
What Albert, the president of AFT-West Virginia, is most proud of from the teacher uprising three years ago is raising awareness for public education across the country. “And I think that did embolden teachers to stand up during the pandemic,” he said. “To say, ‘We matter, our lives matter, and what we do matters.’”