Schooled Reporting on education

Teachers unions battle school choice

Education | West Virginia educators threaten to strike again over charter schools, vouchers proposals
by Laura Edghill
Posted 2/06/19, 03:53 pm

West Virginia teachers are threatening to strike again in opposition to school choice proposals included in legislation to give them a promised pay raise. A nine-day strike in February 2018 ended with a 5 percent pay raise for teachers and some other public employees. Republican Gov. Jim Justice promised an additional 5 percent in October, but the legislation to do so includes reforms the teachers unions oppose.

The bill, which passed in the state Senate on Monday, has provisions to create statewide charter schools, establish educational savings accounts for families that could be used for a variety of expenses, including private school tuition, and require teachers to sign off annually on their union memberships.

“We feel like it’s retaliation for what we did last spring,” Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers–West Virginia, told the Huffington Post. Teachers unions in the state are set to vote Friday on whether to approve more walkouts and protests. Their strike last year set off a wave of similar walkouts across the country. Teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest in the nation, concluded a six-day strike in January, coming away with a deal that included a 6 percent salary increase.

Justice has made it clear that he opposes the bill in its current form. He stated in a news conference that his original intent was to give the teachers an additional 5 percent pay raise without the extras.

“You’re going to take all of the good that we’re putting together and ruin it,” he said.

But the bill’s advocates maintain that it will provide much-needed change in the West Virginia education landscape.

“We want to move the state forward in terms of education reform,” said Senate President Mitch Carmichael, a Republican. “We’re making a real effort to put the student first.” He added that Justice ran for office in 2016 on a platform that included the claim that West Virginians were tired of ranking near the bottom compared with other states in educational success measures.

The bill now rests with the House of Delegates and will likely undergo revisions prior to landing on the governor’s desk. When asked about the prospect of Justice’s veto, Carmichael said, “We’ll just have to deal with that.”

Associated Press/Photo by Jose Luis Magana Associated Press/Photo by Jose Luis Magana Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Overwhelming response

The U.S. Department of Education closed out its 60-day public comment period for proposed Title IX changes regarding sexual assault reporting last Wednesday after receiving tens of thousands of responses. Department officials estimate it will take months to sort through the comments. The law requires them to review each one individually. The extreme volume—more than ten times the norm—illustrates what a contentious issue the revisions are for many.

The proposed rules require schools to follow an investigative process more akin to a court proceeding, including burden-of-proof standards, evidence sharing, and cross-examination. They also require a live hearing, one of the most contentious provisions.

“This is about the proper use of power,” one commenter said. “Weakening Title IX and putting the burden on survivors of assault and rape to bear as the process of investigation, support, and rebuilding takes over, unfairly provides additional harm to the victim.”

Others pointed out that while the guidelines appear to accommodate critical differences between K-12 and higher education, many areas still fall short. In the case of student-to-student sexual harassment, only a notification to the K-12 district’s Title IX coordinator would trigger a full investigation. For students who are traumatized, ashamed, nonverbal, or even just overly shy, that might be an unsurmountable hurdle to overcome.

“Under the proposed rules, however, schools would have no obligation to act if students do not report to ‘the right person,’” according to a comment from a coalition of more than three dozen civil rights groups and others, including the National Education Association.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos maintains that the guidelines will ultimately make the process of reporting and prosecuting sexual assault on campus better for everyone.

“The fundamental focus from my perspective is ensuring that we are being fair and balanced for all students,” DeVos said last week at a forum sponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. —L.E.

Associated Press/Photo by David Goldman Associated Press/Photo by David Goldman A student in a Bible class at a Georgia high school

Book report

At least six states are considering legislative proposals that would encourage or even require schools to offer elective Bible classes that focus on Scripture’s literary and historic influence, a fact that President Donald Trump drew national attention to on Twitter last week: “Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!”

Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, complain that the bills overstep perceived boundaries between church and state and are a part of a larger effort to proselytize students.

Bible electives are already offered in more than 40 states. The current push, though, comes at a time when basic Biblical literacy seems to be disappearing from the cultural landscape. Effectively employing common idioms and phrases such as “a Goliath corporation” or “forbidden fruit”—not to mention understanding vital public constructs such as Good Samaritan laws—requires a baseline Biblical knowledge.

The Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes religious liberty alongside members of Congress, listed closing the Bible knowledge gap as a priority in its 2017 report on Religious Freedom Measures Affecting Prayer and Faith in America. The 116-page document includes sample legislation to require school districts to offer Bible literacy classes as a high school elective.

“Regardless of one’s views regarding the truth or untruth of the Bible, it cannot be disputed that it was one of the most widely read and widely quoted books used by leaders in the formation and history of our government,” the report states. “To not discuss it or understand it would make it extremely difficult to understand the history of our nation.” —L.E.

Having a little fun

Last week’s extreme winter weather forced thousands of school closures across the Midwest and beyond, many lasting the entire week. School leaders took the opportunity to have fun with their “snow day” announcements, some of which featured songs, dances, famous guest announcers, and even a talking hot dog. But none captured as much national attention as a viral video (see below) from Swartz Creek, Mich. Superintendent Ben Mainka and Principal Jim Kitchen’s version of Leonard Cohen’s well-known “Hallelujah” has more than 200,000 views on YouTube with its poetic chorus, “It’s a snow day, a winter cold day, stay home and just play, it’s a great family day.”

The two administrators sing beautifully, and they offer a welcome reminder that sometimes these unexpected changes to our normal schedule can free up precious time to spend with our loved ones. —L.E.

Laura Edghill

Laura Edghill 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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  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Thu, 02/07/2019 01:17 am

    Awesome!! Way to go Laura! That last bit about the Michigan Super and Principal is the kind of lightness we've been totally missing in the news! Plus it's one of my favorite melodies. Thanks!