As much as the demands of West Virginia teachers were about their own pay and benefits, the underlying message was about what teacher compensation means for the quality of the education being provided and, ultimately, the well-being of the state’s kids. “What teachers are told every day is …, ‘This kid can’t read but he has to read by the end of the year; figure it out,’ so we do. ‘These kids are never going to pass this test but he has to pass this test,’ so figure it out and we do it. ‘Well, there are only 25 books and you have 35 kids; figure it out,’ and so we do. So when [politicians] ... look at us and say, ‘I'm sorry, there’s nothing we can do,’ that is not acceptable,” said Jessica Salfia, an English teacher at Spring Mills High School. “Because what we have done for the last dozens of years —the things that we have needed to do to make it work—we have made it work in our classrooms and they have got to make it work for us now.”
The grievances expressed by West Virginia teachers like Salfia are emblematic of those felt by public-school educators across the country, many of whom have struggled for years with demanding and often growing workloads despite relatively low pay. Concerns about the government’s disinvestment in traditional public education in favor of private and charter schools—which have become more acute since the appointment of the pro-school-choice Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—have helped fuel the uptick in teacher unrest. “A lot of it is building up in teachers … and it’s not just the uncertainty about whether we’re going to shift now and invest in school-choice programs,” Weishart said, alluding to speculation that lawmakers in West Virginia, which currently doesn’t have a charter-school law, might introduce such legislation. “It’s also now about whether we’re going to arm them with weapons. … They live day by day now in crisis mode, and I think all of this is just starting to take its toll on teachers.”
Harvard’s Reville, who previously served as Massachusetts’s education secretary, suggested that this pressure, combined with the feeling that they’re not being heard, is starting to push things over the edge for K-12 educators. “I think it’s people in the field of education saying, ‘Don’t forget about us. We’re still here; we’re still doing the hard work of preparing the next generation so that you can have a functioning economy and democracy.’”
The West Virginia teachers’ strike may also be gaining national traction because it is proof that organized labor can still have clout despite political efforts to undermine such movements, Reville said, pointing to a forthcoming ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that’s expected to outlaw mandatory public-sector union fees and therefore weaken such labor organizations. Unions elsewhere, including those representing educators and other public-sector workers, may find it inspiring “that a group of teachers [across the state] came together largely on their own, stood up, took a position, and then held fast when they felt like they weren’t receiving the proper support from state officials,” Reville said.
In that sense, the West Virginia teachers’ strike is symbolically important, according to Reville: “People will take faith in this—they will feel emboldened and empowered to act,” he said. “The fact that [West Virginia’s teachers] made some headway and came out victorious, I think, is a real shot in the arm for the labor movement.”