Schooled Reporting on education

A ‘finger-in-the-eye’ strike

Education | West Virginia teachers unions may have won a battle against the state legislature, but critics argue it is parents and students who are losing the war
by Laura Edghill
Posted 2/27/19, 03:50 pm

West Virginia teachers unions celebrated a dubious win last week, returning educators and students to their classrooms after a two-day strike that temporarily shuttered 54 of the 55 public school districts in the state.

The unions called the strike to protest a bill working its way through the state legislature that would have given teachers a 5 percent raise, launched the first seven statewide charter schools, and established educational savings accounts for students with special needs. This strike followed a nine-day walkout last year that won teachers an initial 5 percent raise and launched a nationwide movement. After teachers went on strike again last week, the state’s Republican-controlled House of Delegates tabled and effectively killed the latest bill. The unions immediately took credit, citing the strike as well as their lobbying efforts as the primary reasons for its demise.

“[The bill] is now dead. It’s gone,” said Fred Albert, president of the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers union. “So our voices were heard.”

But whose voices? Teachers? The unions? Parents and students?

Critics say the children of West Virginia lost out because killing the legislation demolished school choice and further enshrined the status quo. The state flounders near the bottom of national rankings for quality of education. A survey late last year by the Cardinal Institute, a conservative West Virginia–based think tank, found 80 percent of West Virginians thought the state school system was average or poor. More than 60 percent said they thought school choice would improve the education system.

“The unions want to dictate to West Virginia’s duly elected legislature what kind of education policy the state will implement,” Garrett Ballangee, executive director of the Cardinal Institute, told Forbes. “This is an embarrassing development for West Virginia and a finger-in-the-eye to parents that want something different for their children.”

The school choice measures in the bill represented only a fraction of its total cost of $80 million per year, the vast majority of which would have gone to new investments for traditional public education. Those investments included an additional 5 percent raise for teachers, tax credits for teachers’ school supplies, bonus pay for low absence rates, and $24 million for student support personnel. But union leadership assumed a zero-sum stance and adamantly declared the bill was instead an attempt to defund public education.

Putnam County was the sole holdout in the two-day shutdown, with its schools remaining open despite dismal attendance on both days. Less than 20 percent of the district’s teachers and staff showed up for work to just a handful of students. Many teachers and some students instead bundled up and joined local picket lines that swelled as union activists descended on the county in an attempt to pressure the district into conformity.

Faced with enormous pressure to align with its 54 counterparts, Putnam County school officials said they based their decision to remain open on what was best for students. “It is important that our students continue to have the opportunity to learn in a safe and secure environment,” said Putnam County Superintendent John Hudson. “Each day our schools provide much for the students we serve such as a safe and caring environment, meals, and the opportunity to participate in various extracurricular activities.”

A pay raise–only bill sailed through the House of Delegates late last week, pushed by emboldened union lobbies. But the Senate bounced it into its education and finance committees on Saturday, effectively stalling it for now.

Associated Press/Photo by Seth Wenig Associated Press/Photo by Seth Wenig Students at Rutgers University’s commencement last year

Bad service for student borrowers

More than 30 million U.S. student loan accounts are at risk of shoddy maintenance, according to a new report released by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General earlier this month.

The office investigated the actions of nine companies tasked with servicing the Federal Student Aid program over a 2½-year period beginning January 2015. The report found two recurring problems at the companies: Loan servicer representatives failed to explain all repayment options to borrowers, and they miscalculated monthly payments under certain plans. “Borrowers might not have been protected from poor services,” the report states, “and taxpayers might not have been protected from improper payments.”

The report also found the companies had a lack of consistency and quality control in their interactions with borrowers and a culture of lackadaisical enforcement. Numerous infractions received a simple slap on the wrist with little-to-no enforcement or follow-through.

The Department of Education disputed the findings but agreed to follow the report’s recommendations.

“We fundamentally disagree with the [inspector general’s] assertion that we do not have processes and procedures in place to ensure loan servicing vendors provide high-quality, compliant service to borrowers,” said Liz Hill, an Education Department spokeswoman. “That said, we also are continuously looking for ways to improve.” —L.E.

Facebook/West Point–The U.S. Military Academy Facebook/West Point–The U.S. Military Academy Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, addresses West Point cadets on Monday

West Point addresses sexual assault

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., canceled classes on Monday so cadets could participate in discussions and other activities aimed at finding solutions for the troubling sexual assault and harassment trends exposed in a recent Pentagon survey of the nation’s military academies. The survey revealed a 50 percent rise in student reports of unwanted sexual contact at the Army, Navy, and Air Force academies since 2016.

U.S. Military Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams ordered the full-day stand-down, saying the results were unacceptable.

“Sexual assault and harassment have no place at West Point or in our Army,” Williams said in a statement. “It erodes readiness and the trust required to build cohesive teams and is contrary to West Point ideals and Army values.”

The survey mirrored trends at college campuses across the nation by identifying alcohol as a contributing factor in more than half of incidents. West Point officials said they plan to use feedback from Monday’s sessions to improve campus culture and create a safer environment. —L.E.

Pint-sized playground designers

Students at a Georgia elementary school recently saw their drawings of the perfect playground come to life. Last year, Parklane Elementary School in East Point, a suburb of Atlanta, received a grant from a nonprofit program called Build It With KaBOOM! to turn an empty field adjacent to the school into a new playground.

“I sat in the meeting and they asked the kids, ‘So, what do you like to play with?’” Parklane Principal Marissa Wilson told WXIA-TV in Atlanta. “And of course there was a laundry list of things, and they finally gave them paper and told them, ‘Well, sketch out what a good playground would be for you.’ And the kids went bananas.”

Students cranked out drawing after drawing featuring everything from conventional monkey bars and swings to a fantastical slippery mud slide. KaBOOM! took it from there, engineering the design and coordinating with local organizations and a small army of volunteers who slogged through actual mud for the installation. —L.E.

Laura Edghill

Laura is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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