Others suggested that the move was evidence of how disingenuous Justice had been earlier in the week, when he indicated in his town-hall appearances that the state would struggle to fund even a 2 percent increase. “Teachers are frustrated that on Monday governor Justice said, in so many words, ‘too bad.’ But by Wednesday afternoon, he'd found enough funding” to meet the salary demands, said Karla Hilliard, an English teacher at Spring Mills High School in Berkeley County. Governor Justice’s office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Overall, teachers say they’re concerned that, absent a genuine, comprehensive shift in how West Virginia treats them and other K-12 employees, school quality will continue to suffer—and with it the health of the state as a whole. West Virginia’s shrinking GDP, among other factors, has contributed to severe brain drain, and educators told me schools could be key to abating that trend and reviving the state’s economy. “You are not going to be able to attract the jobs, the companies, the multinational corporations that West Virginia needs to be competitive without a strong educational system in place. … Companies are not going to want to come in and have their companies educate their children in a terrible [education system],” said Craig Arch, a special-education teacher at Spring Mills High who identified himself as politically conservative.
Improving the quality of the education system is all but impossible without skilled teachers who feel they’re valued—and who are paid like it, they argue. And as much as they love West Virginia—a deeply felt fidelity to the state was evident throughout my conversations with teachers, almost all of whom were born and raised in the state—the temptation of better pay and benefits elsewhere is often hard to withstand. Some estimates suggest there are more than 720 teacher vacancies statewide.
“We don’t have to move to make more money—we can cross the bridge right over here and be in Maryland, and drive right down the road and be in Virginia. We’ve got other options without a long commute, that’s for sure,” said Rebecca Lindsey, a kindergarten teacher at Widmyer Elementary School in Morgan County, in the state’s Eastern Panhandle. That’s a last resort for the area’s teachers, she said, but it could be the only option if West Virginia’s politicians continue to show they don’t “care for our people.”
Politicians “are fussing about test scores,” Lindsey continued. “Well, you need to put qualified educators in the classroom if you want your test scores to go up.”
Jessica Salfia, an English teacher at Spring Mills High School in Berkeley County, emphasized that educators had been striking on behalf of all state workers who are affected by the PEIA’s rising costs. “The fight is not over,” she told me on Wednesday, noting that it would continue in earnest with the upcoming elections in November. “Every 2018 candidate needs to make fixing PEIA a major focal point of his or her campaign.”