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Students Speak Up about Striking Teachers

From left to right (back), Cora Dunlap, Jakob Spruce, Zack Ihnat, Chase Goldsmith; (front) Clare Higgins, Elena Liu - signatories of an open letter calling for teacher support during the statewide walkouts.
Roxy Todd
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
From left to right (back), Cora Dunlap, Jakob Spruce, Zack Ihnat, Chase Goldsmith; (front) Clare Higgins, Elena Liu - signatories of an open letter calling for teacher support during the statewide walkouts.

Many students throughout the state are joining teachers in protests for what they assert to be fair compensation. Students at Capital High School issued an open letter clarifying their perspectives.

Some officials have accused teachers throughout the state of setting a bad example for students. The students at Capital High School find that laughable. They say it’s been a rich opportunity for dialogue and learning about history and civic responsibility.

“I got the Golden Horseshoe when I was in eighth grade,” Cora Dunlap said. “The history of West Virginia and specifically the history of union activity in West Virginia is I think it's had a tremendous impact on the way that people see what's happening today.”

“I think it's just very heroic if anything,” Chase Goldsmith said. He’s the son of a teacher. He said he admires his mother’s risk taking and willingness to compromise the family’s livelihood for a cause she believes in strongly.

“Teachers have been going down 6, 7 o'clock in the morning to the Capitol wanting their voices to be heard. And that is what this government is what our country was was raised on -- the right to protest that your voices need to be heard. And they're not taking a day off nor are the kids. We're showing that. We can make a difference and this is not a day off for us.

“It's about setting the precedent that there has to be fairness, our voices need to be heard.”

Goldsmith, Dunlap and a group of friends informally began a group, #SecureOurFuture, to express solidarity with striking teachers throughout the state. Together they wrote and issued an open letter to clarify their intentions.

People of West Virginia,

Teachers across the state are striking this Thursday and Friday because of inadequate compensation and rising insurance premiums. We, as West Virginia students, are asking for your support in our movement to #SecureOurFuture by ensuring that our educators are compensated fairly and reasonably.

Our public employees have been promised raises for many years without any follow through from our legislature. Various members are using smoke and mirrors, calling a $404 raise (less than 1% for some teachers) every year for five years a “five percent raise.” This proposal is insulting, neither compensating for the rise in insurance premiums, nor even keeping up with inflation.

Public servants deserve more, and if we want hardworking, dedicated, and talented teachers to stay in West Virginia, we must compensate them competitively.

Currently, the House and Senate are following Governor Justice’s lead to freeze premiums for a 17-month period; the House is planning to raid the rainy day fund, and the Senate is scrabbling for money to build funding PEIA for that period into the state’s budget. All of these proposals expose the lack of empathy and respect for teachers in our state. The legislature is out of touch with what teachers are asking for, portraying basic necessities as extravagant and selfish.

In the state of West Virginia it is illegal for public employees to strike or collectively bargain; this includes the teachers’ union, taking the teeth out of the unions’ bite. In April of 1990, teachers violated state law by going on strike for eleven days in 47 counties. This week’s strike represents the first time all 55 counties will go on strike together. That significantly demonstrates the dire straits that our education system is in, and the insincerity of the promises the legislature has made to our teachers over the years.

It’s an election year, and it’s clear our current elected officials want to pawn this issue onto the next legislature. Seventeen months from now, after midterm elections, public employees would be in the same situation; we cannot keep “kicking the can down the road.” Teachers are already among the worst paid in the nation, and now our legislature would effectively cut their salary further through these changes to PEIA. We are the youngest voting block in the state. We will vote for the future of West Virginia.

The American Federation of Teachers and West Virginia Teachers Association are represented by the colors blue and red. We will be wearing purple, a mixture of these colors, tomorrow to symbolize our solidarity with the school employees who work every day to prepare us to become tomorrow’s citizens. We understand that this strike is not just a day off from school for us; it is not about pay, it’s about what’s right.


Students of West Virginia

Cora Dunlap, Chase Goldsmith, Clare Higgins, Zack Ihnat, Elena Liu, Jakob Spruce

“Young people are here,” Goldsmith said. “We're watching. And you know we care for the future of this state. We're not going crazy and doing a bunch of reckless and ridiculous things. We're representing this group, a community of people of teachers and state employees.”

The students said the walkout has been an opportunity to debate a matter of consequence, and that they’ve given serious thought to ideas from those who oppose the strike.

“Some guy came by in his car, spun around in the school parking lot to yell at us that the strike wasn't the way, and that it was going to hurt low income families,” Dunlap recalled. “We'd overheard that conversation among teachers but we'd also talked among ourselves. And there are people who are going to need childcare for their elementary age kids. And I knew that my teachers had been organizing to collect food. They'd been coordinating with churches and community centers. They were doing everything in their power. But it wasn't like he was making some sort of invalid argument. We knew that this strike had a disproportionate impact on those people.”

They had counterpoints ready.

“What do you do on days of extreme weather?” Goldsmith said.

“Let's look about through the years. You know that we in West Virginia have been bottom of the line test scores,” he continued. “How many kids do you think, out of a system that has 700 school teacher jobs unfilled. how many kids you think didn't get full didn't get the attention that they needed or didn't get the help that they needed? If these pay raises don't go, teachers are going to be moving off left and right and that means more overages less attention. Your kid is going to be swept under the rug.”

“So yeah, it's a hard time right now,” Goldsmith said. “You're in the storm right now, but in the future they are going to receive that better education.”

As to the concern about missed instruction days, Goldsmith isn’t worried about that either. “We will never go a year where we don't get the correct amount of days,” he said. “They will find a way to stuff it in at the end or fix it or go through spring break we'll do something to get the 180 days.”

The students expressed extreme disappointment in their legislative representatives. They said during the course of this legislative session, they’ve had very discouraging experiences.

“We actually we went to the Legislature on Civil Liberties Lobby Day,” Dunlap said, “and we were meeting with [legislators] and a lot of them didn't seem particularly interested in anything that we had to say, they weren't willing to meet, they weren't listening, they didn't have answers. Some of them openly admitted that they hadn't read the legislation that they were putting forth.”

“It was a struggle that day,” she continued, “and so we wrote all these letters. We were hoping that if we gave them the time to prepare, to email us back, that we would we would get a better response. So I wrote probably a dozen emails to different legislators with six very specific questions that I wanted answered. And we got one response. The email in its entirety reads: ‘Thank you for your support of desent education. Sent from my iPad.” And decent is misspelled.”

“So I just, I don't know what to say other than that they're very clearly underestimating us, underestimating what we know, how much we care, and underestimating the likelihood that we will show up to vote.”

“I don't have faith in the people down at the Capitol,” Goldsmith added. “I have faith that our process is going to work. I have faith that the people's voices will reluctantly be heard.”  

Glynis Board hails from the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia and is based in Wheeling at the First State Capital Building. She’s been reporting full time for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2012. She covers a broad range of topics but focuses on producing and hosting the West Virginia Public Broadcasting's daily news show West Virginia Morning.

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