Private School Vouchers: The Impact of Educator Activism in West Virginia and Kentucky
This is the fifth in our series, Private School Vouchers: Analysis of 2019 State Legislative Sessions. Read the first, second, third and fourth parts.
Over the past few years, there have been significant teacher strikes in cities and states across the country. Teachers have walked off the job and to their State Legislatures to highlight low pay and challenging working conditions, chronic underfunding of public education, and proposals to overhaul their pensions. In two states, these strikes played a role in the defeat of proposed private school voucher programs as well.
West Virginia and Kentucky are historically Democratic states with a history of strong union membership. In recent years, however, Republicans have held the governorship and majorities in the State Legislatures and passed legislation aimed at reducing union membership and political influence. In 2016, the West Virginia Legislature overturned the veto of the Democratic governor and passed legislation limiting union membership fees, resulting in a decline in membership. Kentucky passed a similar law in 2017. Despite, or perhaps because of, these attacks, union members mobilized in 2018, and again in the 2019 legislative sessions, to obtain improved pay and benefits and defeat bills harmful to public education.
Teachers in West Virginia, in particular, started a nationwide movement when they went on strike in February 2018, after educators hadn't received a statewide salary raise since 2014. More than 35,000 educators and support staff participated to protest about low teacher pay and the importance of improving the quality of the state's public education system. After a nine-day strike, which closed all 680 public schools in the state, the Republican Governor and State Legislature agreed to a five-percent teacher salary increase. Also in 2018, in Kentucky, dramatic changes to the state's pension plan for teachers, passed by the legislature as an amendment to a water treatment bill, led to statewide teacher strikes. In addition to West Virginia and Kentucky, teachers in a half dozen other states and districts went on strike to protest low wages, rising health care costs, or attempts to change teacher pensions.
This level of educator mobilization carried through to the 2019 state legislative sessions, but this time in opposition to efforts to create private school voucher programs, whether through Education Savings Account (ESA) vouchers as proposed in West Virginia, or through a tax credit as proposed in Kentucky.
In West Virginia, teachers went on strike again, closing all but one of the state's 55 county public school districts. Thousands of teachers protested at the state capital against efforts by the Republican legislative majority to pass bills to allow charter schools and to create an ESA voucher program. Legislation that included the five-percent salary raise teachers won in 2018 was amended by Republican leaders in the State Senate to include the ESA voucher and charter school provisions. After less than a half-day strike, legislators dropped both privatization proposals.
According to Joshua Weishart, Professor of Law at the University of West Virginia and a leading expert on education policy there, "Stiff opposition from teachers and parents fractured any consensus on vouchers in the form of ESAs and tax credits. The ESA bill that passed the Senate by three votes died quietly in a House committee, which then advanced its own voucher bills only to see them pulled on the floor by House leadership to avoid an embarrassing defeat."
In Kentucky, the Governor and the Republican Leader of the House strongly supported legislation to establish tax credit vouchers. Many school superintendents and public school advocates opposed the bill. However, mobilization at the State Capitol by teachers from across the state, and several days during which thousands of teachers called in sick leading to school closures, ultimately led to the bill's defeat. In the end, privatization proponents did not have the votes and did not even bring the bill up for a vote.
In both West Virginia and Kentucky, new anti-union laws and practices and state leadership supporting privatization should have made passage of legislation to establish voucher programs possible during the 2019 sessions. But these two states showed the enduring power of teachers unions in protecting public education. The unions' ability to mobilize teachers and other educators, regardless of the political conditions in the state, may be one of the most effective ways to stop private school voucher proposals.
Many thanks to Jason Unger for compiling the research and drafting this series on 2019 legislative sessions.