West Virginia’s New School Choice Law

Jayme Metzgar:

On February 2018, public school teachers brought West Virginia to its knees. Seeking pay raises and better health plans, unions had declared a “work stoppage” in all 55 counties, shuttering every public school in the state. The “stoppage” — which was in fact an unlawful strike — dragged on for nine school days, costing children nearly two weeks of instruction. Under pressure, the Republican legislature rushed through a pay raise to pacify the unions.

The victorious teachers of West Virginia quickly became the darlings of the socialist left. Jacobin magazine, which had extensively covered the strike, ran a victory-lap interview entitled “What the Teachers Won.” News coverage touched off copycat strikes, beginning in Arizona and spreading to other states. The “Red for Ed” movement was born, uniting unions, socialists, and other far-left radicals in dreams of an American labor renaissance.

Flush with victory, West Virginia teachers’ unions got bolder. The next year, they went on strike again, taking aim at broader education policy. The Republican Senate had passed a bill granting teachers their second pay raise in two years, but they tied it to something for parents: school choice.

It wasn’t much—open enrollment, Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) for special-needs students, and permission for three charter schools statewide. But West Virginia was one of the last remaining states without school choice, and “Red for Ed” wasn’t letting that go without a fight.

The 2019 strike lasted only two days. The West Virginia House of Delegates quickly caved, scuttling school choice and passing a “clean” pay raise for teachers. But 18 Republicans in the state Senate stood firm. No school choice, no second pay raise, they said. Their stand forced the governor’s hand. A special session in June resulted in the passage of modest school choice measures. Open enrollment survived; so did the three charter schools. ESAs did not.