Time to Fight
By Jessica Salfia
Yesterday, I spent the day in Charleston and watched in dismay as the West Virginia House, the governing body that for the last two years has shown the most sense and understanding regarding education reform talks, proved that they too can be bought and sold. With some sleight of hand moves in the multiple education committees, members of the House GOP bullied their colleagues and shoved through bill after and bill and amendment after amendment that will divert public money into ESAs, “scholarship programs” for private school and homeschool programs, measures that would allow private schools to discriminate against LGBTQ students, and of course, charter schools. These are the same damaging measures we walked out of our classrooms over in the 2019 regular session.
And all day, I kept hearing the same arguments from Republican lawmakers.
“This is a revolutionary reform!”
“Other states have charters! We’re behind! We need to compete. We need choice!”
Fellas, I’ve got news for you. You’re about 10 years too late to get in on the charter school excitement. There’s nothing “revolutionary” or new about them.
All over America the charter school experiment is failing. For over 10 years now, we’ve watched these “revolutionary” schools open and close. We’ve watched public school districts struggle as charter schools leeched funds and students, forcing the public schools to shoulder the burden of this failed experiment. More often than not, charter schools are for the few, leaving most students still enrolled in public schools with even less resources than before, and public schools with limited resources to clean up the mess when the charter eventually closes. Charters often create more inequality than they create. I recently wrote about this inequity for the Martinsburg Journal; you can read that oped here.
There are a few charter success stories (as our GOP House and Senate members are more than happy share), mostly in urban areas with a vastly different economic landscapes than West Virginia, and I know a few charter teachers that work in good schools and who are good teachers. A broken clock is right twice a day, after all.
But I know even more teachers who have left charters who say they’ll never work in a charter school again.
And I know even more public school teachers from all over this country who have seen their schools and districts gutted by bloated and failing charter systems.
Like many educational trends, the charter school experiment is coming to an end because it wasn’t effective. Ask any teacher and he or she can tell you that just like No Child Left Behind, standardized testing, A-F school grades, and Common Core Math—the charter experiment is just another gimmick in a long line of trendy educational gimmicks, lauded to produce magic results, but that have ultimately fizzled out with ineffectiveness. To claim that this legislation is "cutting edge reform" is simply false. In fact pushing through a tired school reform that is already failing in other states is EXACTLY the status quo for educational legislation in this state.
There isn’t and can’t be a “get rich quick” scheme when it comes to school reform.
Real reform is hard.
It takes time, training, and funding. Reform looks like supporting our increasingly diverse student population by diversifying our curriculum and providing teachers and school personnel with anti-racist training. It looks like ripping apart our tired old curriculum and letting a coalition of public school teachers from all over this state and country realign our standards and curriculum for the 21st century.
It looks like providing support services and programs for our LGBTQ+ students. West Virginia has the highest rate per capita of transgender teens.
Real reform looks like providing districts with academic coaches and master teachers to work with schools to build lessons and units that best serve those students and teachers of that community. It looks like responsive teaching and revolutionary courses that connect students to their communities and histories: food literature, Appalachian studies, social justice, West Virginia history, Affrilachian poets and writers.
Real reform looks like finding a dedicated revenue source for PEIA and paying teachers and school workers in this state a living wage with no strings attached.
It looks like an adequate number of counselors and school nurses and psychologists.
Real reform is rolling up your sleeves with the educators and activists in the trenches and fighting our poverty and opioid epidemic.
Real reform isn’t expanding an already struggling system.
Real reform isn’t demoralizing and disrespecting educators and the public by ignoring them.
Real reform isn’t introducing charter schools. Charter schools aren’t revolutionary or new. They’re tired. Played out. And historically have proven to only sort of work, sometimes.
So why are some of our Republican lawmakers intent on pushing them through?
Because they don't have the want or the drive for real reform, and there’s money to made. They do want to "get rich quick," but it's their own pockets and the pockets of their donors they intend to line--not school districts.
And the worst part? They have politicized public education. They have made school funding a partisan issue. They have asked each other and the people of West Virginia to choose between their political party and public schools.
Access to education is an American right—it’s not just for well to do lawmakers and their donors. Public education is the great equalizer in this country, and it’s one of the things that makes this country great. We give every child access to a free, quality education. And just like democracy, it’s a hallmark of our society.
We elect officials to protect rights like these, and the job of an elected official is to do the will of the people.
Well, the people of West Virginia have said no to charters.
The people have called, emailed, and shown up by the hundreds to the Capitol. West Virginia educators and school employees have put out our hands and asked our lawmakers to join us in revolutionizing education, and we were and still are being ignored.
Ignoring the public to do the will of out of state donors and Betsy Devos is not democracy—it’s not American. It’s not what West Virginians do to one another. West Virginians show up. We take care of each other. If your neighbor needs a hand, we offer one. And when it’s time to stand up for what we believe in, West Virginians fight.
And our some of our Republican lawmakers have made it crystal clear over the past two days that the time to fight is now.